In 1964, Congress created the Public Land Law Review Commission “to explore how to simplify public land laws and make administering them more effective.” Now, forty-five years later, the General Accounting Office has released a report on the pros and cons of moving the Forest Service from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior. (The full report and a condensed version are available online.)
The reorganization discussion pops up about once a decade. The four most recent explorations of how to reconcile the management of federal lands between the two Cabinet-level departments all resulted in recommendations that were never acted on. (Materials related to these and other earlier efforts are listed under “Reorganization” on our U.S. Forest Service History hub.)
The latest exploration, the GAO report released last month, offers no recommendations but sheds light on the problems and benefits of moving the Forest Service to Interior. If anything, the emphasis on the lack of short-term gains led me to infer this report as a tacit endorsement of not reorganizing but rather for the four major land management agencies (the Forest Service under USDA and the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service in Interior) to simply work harder at cooperating and coordinating their efforts.
Congress asked the GAO to look into the matter because “the emergence of new challenges for both the Forest Service and Interior during a time of severe budgetary constraint, as well as the growing need for agencies to collaborate on large-scale natural resource problems, has revived interest in the potential for improving federal land management and program efficiency and effectiveness.” They were asked specifically “to describe (1) how federal land management
would potentially be affected by moving the Forest Service into Interior and (2) what factors should be considered if Congress and the administration were to decide to move the Forest Service into Interior and what management practices could facilitate such a move.”
The report explores the cultural, organizational, and legal factors the government would need to consider if the move were made. One concern is the impact the move might have on the Forest Service’s role in state and private land management — a mission focus the agency shares with USDA but doesn’t have in common with Interior. (See pages 16-19 of the full report for more.) Not surprisingly, Interior Department reviewers of the report observed “that a move would not necessarily diminish the Forest Service’s role in state and private forestry or cause the Forest Service to modify its current role.” The Forest Service and various stakeholders disagree with that sentiment. All reviewers from both departments agreed, however, that the Forest Service mission aligns well with the Bureau of Land Management’s multiple-use mission and a move to Interior could “increase the overall effectiveness of some of the agencies’ programs and policies.” The obstacles for moving are many but not are insurmountable. Yet the report’s focus on the expected limited short-term benefits makes them seem insurmountable.
It would, perhaps, have been more fruitful if in asking for this investigation Congress had not limited the GAO to the one question of moving the Forest Service to Interior. It should have given the GAO the authority to look at the entire issue: what would be involved in moving some agencies or responsibilities to Agriculture under the Forest Service; moving some but not all of the Forest Service’s responsibilities (like grazing) to Interior; or if the two departments were combined. Looking at only one question leaves the other ones to go begging.
In my opinion, by limiting the investigation, the GAO virtually assured that no new models or proposals could emerge. Furthermore, this limited focus meant that the report would almost immediately begin gathering dust instead of beginning a much-needed conversation about how to manage public and private lands in the 21st century and beyond.