We determined if FS had the proper authority and followed Federal laws and regulations when awarding a $2 million grant to the State of Alaska.
On January 12, 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service (FS) published the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (Roadless Rule) in an effort to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands. The Roadless Rule established prohibitions on construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting on inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System (NFS) lands. The Roadless Rule applied to all National Forests, including the Tongass National Forest located in southeast Alaska. The Tongass National Forest is the largest National Forest, measured by land area, within the NFS.
On January 19, 2018, Alaska requested full exemption from the rule through a petition to the Secretary of Agriculture. In this petition, Alaska requested that USDA permanently exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule. Alaska stated that an exemption from the Roadless Rule would provide opportunities to rebuild the timber industry and create jobs for the rural communities in the Tongass National Forest. On June 21, 2018, the Secretary of Agriculture responded to Alaska’s petition by directing FS to work with Alaska to develop a State-specific exemption to the Roadless Rule under the Administrative Procedures Act. On August 2, 2018, FS and Alaska entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to document responsibilities as cooperating agencies throughout the efforts to develop a State-specific exemption.
In August 2018, FS awarded the State a $2 million grant to help Alaska and FS complete the specific actions needed to develop a State-specific exemption to the Roadless Rule. These actions included facilitating an advisory committee, which was comprised of a diverse mix of organizations and individuals representing State-specific interests, to provide Alaska with input during the rulemaking process.
In a September 24, 2019 article, an Alaska-based news organization reported on the decision facing FS related to the Tongass exemption, as well as concerns expressed by various parties about the allowability of this $2 million grant. According to this article, Alaska was awarded $2 million in funding under a State fire assistance grant, which is typically used to help communities prevent and suppress wildfires. The news report also indicated that Alaska awarded some of the funds from the $2 million grant to the Alaska Forest Association, a timber industry group, while other stakeholders in the Roadless Rule, like Tribal Governments, were not granted any Federal funding to help make their case.
Federal regulations require agencies that issue competitive grants and cooperative agreements to announce specific funding opportunities via a public notice. Additionally, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides guidance on distinguishing between mandatory and discretionary grants. GAO states that grant programs are either mandatory or discretionary. In mandatory grant programs, Congress directs awards to one or more classes of prospective recipients who meet specific criteria for eligibility, in specified amounts. Discretionary grants should be subject to a competitive process, which includes notifying the public when funding opportunities are available. OIG found no mandatory grant language which directed FS to provide funding to Alaska, or any other State, in order to facilitate participation as a cooperating agency under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
On November 18, 2019, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) received a Congressional request from two Congressional Representatives to examine the potential misuse of the $2 million FS grant to Alaska. Based on this request, we initiated an inspection related to this grant in March 2020.
Our objectives were to: (1) determine if FS had the proper authority and followed Federal regulations when awarding a $2 million grant to the State of Alaska; (2) determine if the funds were used for allowable purposes; (3) determine if other stakeholders were aware that Federal funding was available for the purpose of the grant; and (4) determine what consideration, factors, or decisions led FS to award the $2 million grant.
WHAT OIG FOUND
On January 12, 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service (FS) published the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (Roadless Rule) in an effort to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future
generations. The Roadless Rule established prohibitions on certain activities, including the
construction of roads in inventoried roadless areas on National Forest System lands. Certain
National Forest System lands in Alaska, including areas located in the Tongass National Forest, are subject to the Roadless Rule. In August 2018, FS issued a $2 million grant to Alaska so that Alaska could complete actions needed to develop a State-specific Roadless Rule exemption within the Tongass National Forest. These actions included facilitating an advisory committee to provide Alaska with input during the rulemaking process. FS awarded this funding through its State and Private Forestry—State Fire Assistance Program, which is used to provide assistance to State and privately owned lands outside of National Forests.
We found that FS had authority under the National Environmental Policy Act to provide funding to facilitate Alaska’s participation in the State-specific rulemaking, as a cooperating agency.
However, the processes FS used to award the $2 million grant to Alaska did not comply with Federal laws and regulations. Specifically, FS modified an existing Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978 grant between FS and Alaska. FS officials stated that they needed to quickly award this grant to Alaska to facilitate its efforts to develop a State-specific Roadless Rule exemption. The Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978 was an Act designated for Federal assistance to State and private forests, not Federal forests such as the Tongass National Forest. Further, FS’ decision to issue this grant by modifying an existing grant did not comply with Federal laws and regulations related to competition for discretionary program funding. As a result, we found that stakeholders were unaware that Federal funding was available for the purposes of this grant. In addition, FS should not issue funding to Alaska under the August 2018