The U.S. Forest Service’s self-labeled transparency in its budget for Land Between the Lakes may have missed its mark — some 400 pages of heavily redacted emails received by Lyon Judge-Executive Wade White in response to a Freedom of Information request, show LBL budget data different from that of Region 8 in Atlanta.
The emails also show that conversations regarding pending budget cuts for the 173,000-acre LBL National Recreation Area have been ongoing for months.
The latest controversy came to light following an April 20 meeting hosted by the forest service with executives of Lyon and Trigg counties in Kentucky and Stewart County, Tennessee. A third of LBL lies in each of those counties, meaning each county lost a third of its population and a third of its tax base when the government used eminent domain to take the 40-mile peninsula between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers to create LBL between 1963 and 1973.
A second forest service meeting Tuesday with the same county executives, representatives of Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul and First District U.S. Rep. James Comer failed to resolve the confusion or mistrust created by the first meeting. Thursday, White said a part of the issue stems from inaccurate data the forest service gave him, the people and the congressman about the April 20 meeting.
“There’s a lot of media right now focusing on all these redactions, and how (the forest service) could do that, which defeats the whole purpose of the Freedom of Information Act,” White said. “It’s counterproductive in trying to trust the forest service.”
Restoring trust between LBL’s managing agency and the public was a major goal of Tina Tilley when she became area supervisor in June 2013. She had significant success by the time she retired earlier this year. However, the forest service’s failed effort at transparency has damaged the trust Tilley built. “I told the guys sitting there (Tuesday) that Tina had been working for years to rebuild the trust and had done a decent job of it,” White said. “I told them, ‘You guys have blown that out of the water — nobody trusts you — it’s all gone.’ ”
White said the deception is coming from Region 8 in Atlanta rather than from onsite LBL employees. He also attributed it to misleading comments by acting area supervisor Tim Pohlman following the April 20 meeting. Pohlman is no longer at LBL.
“I’m taking the word transparency away from them — they can’t use it anymore,” White said. “Two days after the (April) meeting they claimed there was no discussion about the budget. So not only are they poor at transparency, they are poor at telling the truth. When I go through these numbers I don’t even know what to trust.”
White cited budget cuts going back 10 years. He noted that between 2010 and 2019, LBL funding dropped from $13 million to 10 million. “If you go to fiscal year ’20, it goes down to $8.4 million. So there is well over a $5 million cut in the past 10 years, a time where you’ve got inflation, you’ve got more expensive things and you’ve got $5 million less money. So it’s not just what they are going to do in FY ’22.”
White speculated the forest service will do what it has done since 2013 in the next fiscal year. “They are going to lower what they give us,” he said.
Based on past actions, lowering services at LBL would likely mean program cuts, closed facilities, and neglected maintenance projects including roads and bridges. “It’s the same pattern every time,” White said. “This year in FY ’21, one thing that is final, is a $1 million shortfall that they are having to make up with savings, from fees they had put away to help with deferred maintenance. I asked them that specific question because they were not going to tell us. They collect $4 million to $5 million in fees people pay.”
White said the forest service pays “a lot of their expenses out of the fees, and usually they have about $500,000 to $600,000 left over and they put that toward deferred maintenance. They have $7 million in deferred maintenance over there for things that need to be repaired,” he said. “They are chipping away with that $600,000 a year, which is a good thing. Well this year, Region 8 cut the allocation so much that they are having to take $1.5 million from their $3.2 million in savings from fees and put it toward regular operations because they didn’t get enough (money) from Region 8. Then they bragged to me that they are going to spend $400,000 from the Great American Outdoor Act on deferred maintenance.
“I said, ‘Okay, so are you still going to spend the $600,000 you usually spend from fees for deferred maintenance?’ They said, ‘No, we’ve got to spend that on operations. I said, ‘Why?’ Their reply was ‘Region 8 didn’t send LBL enough money this year.’ ”
Though voice mails and an email to the public affairs officer at LBL were not answered, and no one at Region 8 in Atlanta responded to phone messages, a handout dated June 15 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture titled “Land Between the Lakes Briefing,” reads: “… funding levels presented by the local unit and the RO (regional office) appeared different because (1) the local unit displayed current year collections only and (2) the RO instead displayed LBL’s total available funding authority (all collections still on the books from prior and current years that the unit has authority to spend).”
White said he thinks the media and the public have focused too much on the blank line items for heritage and recreation in the 2022 budget that came to light at the April meeting. “They (forest service) try to dance around and point to the line item that was blank and say that was what the (controversy) is all about,” he said. “That’s not true. This is about continual reductions that have been going on for years and years.”
White noted that McConnell and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield shepherded the LBL Protection Act through Congress in 1998, the intent was that 70% of the recreation area’s funding would come from congressional appropriations and 30% from fees earned on site. White added that the forest service has almost reversed those percentages.