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Reducing our deferred maintenance backlog

Lenise Lago in uniform.
Associate Chief Lenise Lago

This week, I testified on behalf of the USDA Forest Service before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in a hearing on infrastructure on National Forest System lands. Infrastructure is what links Americans and their public lands. Congress is taking notice of the value of our infrastructure and the urgent need for more maintenance funding. The hearing gave us a chance to lay out the facts and tell our story before the committee.

At this hearing, I shared with the committee the level of investment we as a nation have contributed towards creating the vast infrastructure we have today across our National Forest System. Much of it dates to the proud legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and much more to the postwar period of building roads, bridges and facilities for timber removal and wildland fire management. We have offices, employee housing, airtanker and smokejumper bases, hydroelectric facilities, water and wastewater treatment systems—the list goes on. The scope of our investments is vast, including about 370,000 miles of road, 158,000 miles of trail, 13,000 bridges, 40,000 buildings, and 17,000 toilet structures.

Infrastructure is key to the social and economic benefits people get from the National Forest System. Over 149 million visitors use our infrastructure annually, contributing over $10 billion to the U.S. economy each year while supporting about 143,000 jobs, mostly in gateway and rural communities. Infrastructure is the physical link between Americans and their public lands—without it, we cannot fulfill our mission or effectively uphold our core value of conservation. People depend on a safe Forest Service road network to get to schools, stores, hospitals, homes, in short, go about their daily lives in a safe and secure manner. Our road network is also critical to carrying out active management to improve forest conditions, providing fire protection and conducting emergency responses.

Example of a Maintenance Backlog Poster; Bridger -Teton National Forest; Wyoming; Blind Bull
One of five posters designed to create awarenes of currnet infrastructure projects.

I pointed out to the committee that, even though our infrastructure requires maintenance every year, we have failed to keep up with it for some time now. For decades, we accumulated billions of dollars in deferred maintenance—scheduled maintenance that doesn’t get done. Every instance of deferred maintenance puts us even further behind, creating a backlog that keeps growing. Today, the Forest Service has a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $5.2 billion. By comparison, our budget for infrastructure improvement and maintenance in fiscal year 2018 was just $449 million.

I also shared with the committee steps we can take to help make up the shortfall. The President’s Budget for fiscal year 2020 includes a Public Lands Infrastructure Fund allocating monies for deferred maintenance on the National Forest System. Another funding source is the Federal Highway Administration’s Federal Lands Transportation Program. Although the Forest Service has more miles of publicly accessible road and four times as many bridges as any other federal land management agency, we receive only about 5 percent of the funding from this program.

In keeping with our core value of service, innovations are another key part of reducing deferred maintenance. One such step is reforming our processes for environmental review. Our revised rule under the National Environmental Policy Act will make it easier to maintain and repair the infrastructure people need to use and enjoy their public lands—the roads, trails, campgrounds and other facilities.

We continue using our Conveyance Authority to sell facilities that are no longer needed, with the proceeds going to meet other infrastructure needs. Our new Leasing Authority under the 2018 Farm Bill will also help. Our travel management plans list the roads and trails most needed for access and those that are not needed as much so we can find ways to reduce our deferred maintenance. The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act has helped us keep up with needed maintenance at heavily used developed recreation sites across the country.

During the hearing, I shared all this information and more with the committee, helping Congress gather the facts it needs to raise the profile of our infrastructure issues. My testimony highlighted the importance of our infrastructure to the people we serve and the lands we care for—and the urgency of reducing our deferred maintenance backlog so we can fulfill our mission.

Below, you can view a part one of Associate Chief Lenise Lago's recent testimony on front of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to discuss our deferred maintenance needs. Click ahead for the full recording from this Senate hearing.