You are here

Only The Forest Service Can Prevent Forests

Op-Eds and Articles

Remember," Smokey Bear likes to remind careless campers, "only you can prevent forest fires." Only you - and the U.S. Forest Service, which has been doing one heck of a job suppressing fires in national forests since 1910. But in a rare case of a government agency being too good for its own good at what it does, the government's fire suppression-policy is coming back to burn it.The infernos that turned huge swaths of Yellowstone National Park into a lunar-like Sea of Tranquillity in the late 1980s [rangers last year refused this writer's request for a "scorched-earth rebate" on his $20 entrance fee] might have been a clue that allowing small forest fires to burn according to nature's way helps prevent the cataclysmic conflagrations that have been coming with increasing frequency since Uncle Sam began playing Mother Nature. That's because - maybe they don't teach this stuff in forestry school - smaller, more frequent fires consume the dead wood and underbrush that otherwise accumulate to dangerous levels, resulting in more catastrophic fires when they occur.But just in case those in the bureaucracy didn't get the message after Yellowstone, the watercooler rangers at the General Accounting Office, or GAO, are reminding them, warning that without a change in attitude about fire management similar disasters or worse are coming for other U.S. forests. Since 1984, the annual average number of fires that burn 1,000 acres or more has increased from 25 to 80, the GAO points out, and the total average number of acres burned by each of these fires has increased from 164,000 to 765,000. Naturally, the costs of controlling such fires also have escalated exponentially - from $134 million in 1986 to $335 million in 1994 - which does not include the higher costs of preparedness, not to mention health consequences, environmental impact and property damage. In one typical case, a 1996 wildfire on the outskirts of Denver resulted in the rapid silting up of a city water reservoir, the dredging of which cost more than dousing the fire.In 1995 the Forest Service estimated that about one-third, or 39 million acres, of the lands it manages in the interior West were at risk of "large, uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfires," says GAO. And the danger will persist in the foreseeable future in spite of a Forest Service proposal to clean out the overfueled forest floors by 2015 - a strategy that if fully implemented may cost as much as $12 billion according to GAO and leaves unaddressed the problem of how and where to dispose of the fuelstuff.The Forest Service's "just say no to nature" policy also threatens trees that haven't yet been torched. Dense stands of timber unthinned by small fires become more susceptible to disease and insects, and less resistant to future blazes because fire-friendly trees begin to predominate.THE A-B-C'S OF FEDERAL CONTRACTOR PADDINGPlumbing the complexities of government contracting isn't easy, but visualization may help. First, think of the federal government as a giant septic field. Now imagine that hard-earned tax dollars are flushed down the toilet and pumped out by the billions into the field, clinging to and clogging in various strata as they trickle downward from prime federal contractors to the secondary or tertiary contractors below them.When a primary contractor has to directly manage the work of subcontractors, it is permitted to charge the government an administrative fee for the trouble. But even when primary contractors aren't directly overseeing what their subcontractors are doing, and thus incurring no actual administrative costs, primary contractors sometimes still are charging the government the fee. That means millions, perhaps billions of dollars more than necessary are filtered out at certain levels of the septic field, and taxpayers often are paying twice or more for the services of government subcontractors. In fact, sometimes administrative fees are being paid even when primary contractors are specifically prohibited from meddling in the work of their subcontractors.Among federal agencies, the Department of Energy, or DOE, probably is most reliant on the use of private, for-profit contractors to manage and clean up its far-flung nuclear-weapons complex. In 1996, DOE primary contractors awarded a $5.3 billion chunk of their work to subcontractors. And it's here, thanks to a recent report from DOE's inspector general, or IG, that we can see contractor padding as practiced by the pros. The 12 primary contractors audited by the IG received an estimated $34 million more than was justified, the report concluded, because "the department had not developed specific policies and procedures to define subcontractor costs that should be excluded from prime contractor fee bases.""By including subcontractor costs in prime contractor fee bases, the department is, in essence, paying two fees for the same effort," says the IG. But DOE is by no means alone in turning a blind eye toward contract padding. "It's almost become acceptable practice everywhere in the government," says one government subcontractor interviewed by waste & abuse, "so that no justification is required of companies for what they add to their rates." Although some contract reform is underway at the margins, according to the contractor, the padding problem "goes unchecked" on "those larger programs where you have a big prime and multiple subs. Which means you're looking at astronomical rates for very little payoff."