oversight

Federal Fire Management: Limited Progress in Restarting the Prescribed Fire Program

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1990-12-05.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                                                  ,
                                                                          3;
                                                                    ‘-1   13
                  United   States   General   Accounting   Office

                  Report to the Chairman, Envircmnent,
GAO               Energy, and Natural Resources
                  Subcommittee, Committee on
                  Government Operations, House of
                  Representatives
December   1990
                  FEDERAL FIRE
                  MANAGEMENT
                  Limited Progress in
                  Restarting the
                  Prescribed Fire
                  Program
GAO                United States
                   General Accounting  Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20548

                   Resources, Community,       and
                   Economic Development        Division

                   B-239642

                   December 6, 1990

                   The Honorable Mike Synar
                   Chairman, Environment, Energy, and
                     Natural Resources Subcommittee
                   Committee on Government Operations
                   House of Representatives

                   Dear Mr. Chairman:

                   Because of the severtty of fires in 1988 on federal wildlands, you asked
                   us to evaluate the federal government’s fire management program.
                   During that season, severe wildland fires burned many parts of the
                   western LJnited States. The most publicized of these fires occurred in
                   and around Yellowstonc Sational Park, where fires started by lightning
                   early in the fire season were allowed to burn, under a policy permitting
                   “prescribed natural fires.” When several of the fires later became wild-
                   fires. burning out of control, a public controversy ensued. This
                   prompted the government to suspend the prescribed fire program and
                   the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to establish the Fire Man-
                   agement Policy Review Team to study federal policies on fire manage-
                   ment in national parks and wildernesses. The Review Team made 16
                   recommendations that, were adopted by the Secretaries on .June 1, 1989,
                   and formed the basis for a revamped prescribed fire program.

                   This report provides our findings on the benefits of allowing some fires
                   to burn in controlled situations, progress and constraints in imple-
                   menting a revamped prescribed fire program, and the need to monitor
                   the program’s implementation. The report builds on our May 24, 1990,
                   testimony and video report before your subcommittee, which described
                   the results of our work as of that date.’


                   The Review Team reaffirmed that fire is beneficial and even necessary
Results in Brief   to wildlands. The Rcvicw Team’s report stated that where fire has been
                   a historic component of the environment it is essential to continue that
                   influence, and that attempts to exchlde fire from such lands could result
                   in unnatural ecologic,al c,hanges and increased risks created by accumu-
                   lation of fuels on thcx forest floor.


                   ‘SW Federal Fm Managen~mr   F:vnluation of Changes Made After Yrllowstone   (GAO/T-KCED-90-84
                   and GAO ‘KCED-HO-01 IT 1




                   Pagr 1                                              GAO /RCED-Yl-42    Prescribed   Fire Progra,,,
                       habitat, reducing the hazardous buildup of fuels: establishing fuel
                       breaks in parks and wildernesses, and restoring and maintaining natural
                       processes in these wildland ecosystems. Some fires started by lightning
                       (prescribed natural fires) or set by fire specialists (management-ignited
                       prescribed fires) were allowed to burn providing (1) their purpose was
                       to meet resource management objectives, (2) they did not threaten
                       human life or property, (3) they remained within prescribed boundaries,
                       and (4) resources were available to control them.

                       Before 1988: about :I,500 prescribed fires were allowed to burn in parks
                       and wildernesses. Since the fires were usually small, they aroused no
                       controversy or concc’rn. This situation changed in 1988, when a number
                       of prescribed natural fires in Yellowstone National Park burned out of
                       control, resulting in a controversy over what the media termed the gov-
                       ernment’s “let burn” policy. IJltimately, the fires in Yellowstone
                       (including some prc,scribed natural fires that went out of control and,
                       consequently, were declared wildfires) burned about 700,000 acres of
                       the park and cost the government more than $100 million in firefighting
                       expenses. Because of the controversy over the Yellowstone fires, the
                       government suspended t,he prescribed natural fire program.

                       On September 28, 1988. the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture
                       appointed a Fire Management Policy Review Team to identify problems
                       in the program.:’ The Review Team assessed fire management policies,
                       reviewed individual fire management plans, held public hearings, and
                       reported its findings and recommendations to the Secretaries of the Inte-
                       rior and Agriculture in a final report on May 5, 1989. (App. I shows the
                       stat,us of the Rcvicw Team’s recommendations, as of August 31, 1990.)


                       The Review Team’s report endorsed the practice of allowing fire to play
The Benefits of Fire   its natural role in wildland ecosystems. The report stated that in parks
Have Been Reaffirmed   and wildernesses \vhcrcn fire has been a historic component of the envi-
                       ronment, the contimlation of its influence is critical. The report also
                       stated that attempts to exclude fire from these lands could lead to major
                       unnatural changes in vcbgetation and wildlife and contribute to uncon-
                       trollable wildfires as the result of an accumulation of fuels.

                       Wildfire control in \‘osemitc National Park, California, in 1990 illus-
                       trates how the historical use of prescribed fires can reduce the intensity




                       Page 3                                    GAO/RCED91-42   F’rescribed Fire Program
                       R-239642




                       have their plans approved in 1992 or later. Park Service officials esti-
                       mated that 11 additional parks would have approved plans by 1992 and
                       that the plans for the other 12 parks would be completed in 1992 or
                       later. However, since neither agency has firmly committed to these
                       dates, additional delays could occur.

                       At the regional level, eight interagency preparedness plans were to be
                       developed, but, as of August 1990, only two had been approved. The
                       status of these plans is particularly important to the Park Service,
                       which requires that the interagency preparedness plan be approved
                       before national parks within the region, including those with approved
                       individual fire management plans, can restart their prescribed fire pro-
                       grams. Forest Service guidance does not include such a requirement.

                       A national interagency preparedness plan (contained in the 1990
                       National Interagency Mobilization Guided ) was approved in April 1990.
                       Among other things, the plan describes the conditions under which the
                       use of prescribed fires must be reduced or curtailed. Specifically, the
                       plan defines five levels of preparedness based on the severity of fire
                       conditions, the extent of fire activity, and the availability of resources.
                       However, some regional preparedness plans describe only three or four
                       preparedness levels. With different levels meaning different things to
                       different people, confusion about the severity of fire conditions could
                       prevail when the risk of wildfires is greatest.


                       To be effective, implementation of approved fire management plans
Resource Limitations   requires both adequate resources and commitment. However, the imple-
and Resistance Could   mentation of prescribed fire programs at certain parks and wildernesses
Constrain Program      could be constrained by resource limitations and/or resistance to the
                       program by fire managers and wilderness managers.
Implementation
                       Because wildfires can threaten human life and property, they must be
                       given priority over prescribed fires for available resources. Prescribed
                       fires can be allowed to burn only if sufficient firefighters and equipment
                       remain to both manage the fires and keep them under control. Over the
                       last 7 years, the Forest Service’s fire protection program has been
                       funded at an average of about, 84 percent of the amount the Forest Ser-
                       vice calculated to be the program’s maximum efficient level. In addition,
                       over the last 10 years, the total number of firefighters has declined sub-
                       stantially. For exampk. from 1978 to 1988 the number of seasonal




                        Page 5                                   GAO/RCED91-42   Prescribed   Fire Program
                        B-239642




                        ensure that it will remain so during the ensuing 24 hours, given reason-
                        ably foreseeable weather conditions and fire behavior. If this certifica-
                        tion cannot be made. the fire is to be declared a wildfire and suppressed.
                        While this new requircmcnt sounds reassuring, a prescribed fire might
                        not be suppressed after it, was declared a wildfire if firefighting crews
                        and equipment were committed to higher-priority fires.


                        The high risks and potential benefits of prescribed fire programs make it
Monitoring              essential that they be closely monitored. During hearings before your
Implementation of       subcommittee on May 24, 1990, we discussed the need for federal agen-
Prescribed Fire         ties to monitor the implementation of the prescribed fire program. Spe-
                        cifically. we discussed the need for a monitoring program to address the
Programs Is Essential   number of opportunities that arise during the fire season for prescribed
                        fires, the number of fires that, are allowed to burn as prescribed fires,
                        the number that must bc suppressed, and the factors that require the
                        fires to be suppressed (such as weather, funding, and firefighter availa-
                        bility). We stated that such information would be useful to the Park Ser-
                        vice, the Forest Scrvicc. and the Congress in determining the resources
                        needed for a prescribed I’irc program that is both safe and effective.

                        In a June 15, 1990. memorandum to its field offices, Forest Service
                        headquarters acknowledged the need to monitor. on an interagency
                        basis, the implementation of the prcscribcd fire program as outlined
                        above. However, as of August 1990, the Forest Service had not imple-
                        mented a monitoring program nor had the Park Service gathered this
                        kind of information


                        After operating for almost 20 years, the prescribed fire program became
Conclusions             the subject of intense controversy during the Yellowstone fires in 1988,
                        resulting in a reexamination of the program by the multiagency Review
                        Team. The Review Team reaffirmed the benefits of fire as a land man-
                        agement tool in national parks and wildcrncsses. However, the Park Ser-
                        vice and Forest Service have made limited progress in converting this
                        conceptual reaffirmation into the detailed follow-on actions needed to
                        allow on-the-grountl implcmcntation of the program.

                        Few of the individual fire management plans needed to restart the pro-
                        gram have been complct,ed: only two of eight regional interagency
                        preparedness plans, which arc essential to the prescribed fire program,
                        have been approved: and firm dates for completing these plans do not
                        exist. Furthermore. some regional preparedness plans have a different


                         Page 7                                   GAO/RCED-91-42   Prescribed   Fire Program
R-239642




forests across the United States, including Yellowstone National Park.
We did not review the agencies’fire programs in the state of Alaska.

We interviewed fire program officials in the Park Service, the Forest
Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. We also interviewed offi-
cials from the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory, the Greater Yel-
lowstone Coordinating Committee, the National Fire Protection
Association, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and three
regional interagency fire coordination centers. We visited fire sites in
Yellowstone and other areas. We reviewed relevant agency fire reports
and legislative documents.

As requested, we did not obtain official agency comments on a draft of
this report from the Department of the Interior or the U.S. Department
of Agriculture. However, we discussed the factual information in this
report with Park Service and Forest Service officials in Washington,
D.C., and Bureau of Land Management officials at the Boise Interagency
Fire Center. These officials generally agreed that the information was
accurate. We performed our work in accordance with generally accepted
government auditing standards.

IJnless you publicly announce its contents earlier, we plan no further
distribution of the report until 30 days from the date of this letter. At
that time, we will send copies to the Secretaries of the Interior and Agri-
culture and other interested parties and make copies available to others
upon request.

This report was prepared under the direction of James Duffus III,
Director, Natural Resources Management Issues, who may be reached at
(202) 2757756 if you or your staff have any questions. Other major
contributors are listed in appendix IV.

Sincerely yours,




Assistant Comptroller General




Page 9                                    GAO/RCED91-42   Prescribed   Fire Program
Page 11   GAO/RCED-9142   Prescribed   Fire Program
Appendix II

SeasonalRegular Fire Personnelin the Forest
Service, 1978 to 1988

               Calendar    year                                                               Number of personnela
               1978                                                                                                8 444
               1979                                                                                                6,606
               1980                                                                                                6.245
               1981                                                                                                6.414
               1982                                                                                                4.980
               1983                                                                                                5,155
               1984                                                                                                4,636
               1985                                                                                                5,158
               1986                                                                                                4,600
               1987                                                                                                5,112
               1988                                                                                                A RX4
               Vote The Forest Service prorIdes 60 percent of the federal flreflghtmg reso”ices
               “Includes regular fire control personnel-crews. flreflghters. patrols, lookouts, etc Does not Include
               emergency f!reflghters and others iNho engage I” fire control work
               Source Personnel Employed :I” Vnldfire Presuppress~on and Suppression Actlv~t~es, U S Forest
               Service




               Page 13                                                    GAO/RCED91-42       Prescribed   Fire Prognm
Appendix IV

Major Contributors to This Report


                          <JamesHunt, Assistant Director
Resources,                Charles Barchok, Assignment Manager
Community, and            Nancy Boardman, Staff Evaluator
                          *June Foster, Staff Evaluator
Economic                  Sharon Butler, Reports Analyst
Development Division,
Washington, D.C.

                          Robin Reid, Evaluator-in-Charge
Seattle Regional Office   Brent Hutchison, Staff Evaluator




(140725)                  Page 15                               GAO/RCED-91.42   Prescribed   Fire Program
,I.,_   ..,,..   ..”   ,..,,_,   ,,“,,   ..I       _   ,,.,   ..,.   “,   I,   __,   ,_-...,                                                                ,,,           .,
                                                                                               ,,   ,,_,   ..,,,..,   .   .,.-   ..--.   -        .




                                                                                                                                             .,       ..,   _     -   -        .   v-m




                                                                                               The firs t five copies of each GAO report are free. Additional copies
                                                                                               are $2 each. Orders should he sent to the following address, accom-
                                                                                               panied by a check or money order made out to the Superintendent
                                                                                               of Documents, when necessary. Orders for 100 or more copies to be
                                                                                               mailed to a s ingle address are discounted 25 percent.

                                                                                               U.S. General Accounting O ffice
                                                                                               P.O . Box 0018
                                                                                               Gaithersburg, MD 20877

                                                                                               Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 275-6241.

                                               i
Appendix III

Comparison of Estimated Funds Needed With
Funds Allocated for Park Service and Forest
Service Prescribed Fire Programs, Fiscal
Year 1990
               Thousands     of dollars
                                                                                               Percentage of
                                                     Funds            Funds                    needed funds
               Agency                               needed        allocated      Shortfall          allocated
               Park Service (all regions,
                 excluding    Alaska)                $3,500           $2,400          $1.100                69
               Forest Serme (all regions,
                 excludmg Alaska)                   $34,700               $400       $34,300                     1

               Source Park Sewce and Forest Service regional lnformaton




               Page 14                                               GAO/RCED-9142     Prescribed Fire Program
Appendix I

Status of Forest Service and Park Service
Implementation of Review
Team Recommendations

                                                                                              ~      -Status         as of August 31,199O
Recommendation                                                  U.S. Forest Service                                          National Park Service
1 Reaffirm strengthen          and clarify fire                 Completed      Dlrectlve issued to Ilne officers             Same as for Forest Service
management   policies                                           that reaffirmed, strengthened,    and clarlfled
                                                                agency’s policies for prescribed fire
2 Reaffirm    that fires are either prescribed             or   Completed     Dlrectlve     issued to line officers          Same as for Forest Serv&
wild
3 Review fire management    plans for                           In process Regions        directed     to review fire        In process Park Service has conducted an
compliance with revised standards                               management   plans                                           initial review of all 26 fire management plans
4 Include speclflc crlterla to strengthen              fire     In process    Eight of 75 v,lldernesses           have       In process Three of 26 parks have completed
management    plans                                             completed    this requirement                                this requirement
5 Cooperatively    develop a natlonal           and             In process Natlonal plan approved in April                   Same as for Forest Service
reglonal interagency contingency                                1990 Two of 8 regIonal plans approved as
(preparedness)    plans                                         of August 1990
6 Require dally certlflcatlon  that prescribed                  Completed     Added       to agency’s     pollcles           Same as for Forest Service
fire IS and WIII remain under control given
reasonably foreseeable weather condltlons
and fire behavior
7 Reevaluate management~lgnlted    fires and                    In process A dlrectlve to accomplish this                    In process A dlrectlve to accomplish this
other methods for reducing hazardous fuels                      task was Issued by the Deputy Chief. State                   task was Issued by the Acting Dlrector of the
                                                                and Private Forestry                                         Park Service
8 Establish    properly     staffed     offices for fire        No addItIonal fire management    staff needed,               Completed     In fiscal years 1989 and 1990, 95
program                                                         according to the Dlrector of Fire and                        addItIonal full-time personnel were hlred
                                                                Avlatlon Management
9 Increase interagency emphasis on                              In process Being done by a formal                            Same as for Forest Service
Improving fire management  programs                             coordinating  group (called the Natlonal
                                                                WIldfIre Coordinating  Group) representing
                                                                the five land management    agencies and the
                                                                Natlonal Assoclatlon of State Foresters
10 Require that fire management   plans                         In process Being accornpllshed             as part of        Same as for Forest Service
comply with the Natlonal EnvIronmental                          fire management  plan revisions
Policy Act
11 Improve public         InformatIon     about fire            In process   Agency       mcreasing      public              In process   Agency developing       a public
programs                                                        awareness    through      fire plans                         awareness    program
12 Review departmental           fire fundlnq                   Completed   Fiscal year 1990 budget has a                    Same as for Forest Service
methods                                                         new separate account lor the fire program
13 Conduct     addItIonal      fire management                  In process through Forest Service s Forest                   In process on a lImIted scale II- various
research                                                        Fire and Atmospheric  Sciences Research                      regions, lnd!vldual parks, and unlversltles
                                                                Program FundIng con:,traints are llmltlng
                                                                the program
14 In Alaska, comply with revised prescribed                    Completed     A directive was Issued to line                 Completed     A directive was issued to line
fire poi~cy, but retain hIstorIcal wIldfIre                     officers by the Chief of the Forest Service                  officers by the Acting DIrector of the Park
suppresslon    termmology                                                                                                    Service
15 Review and correct          any policy misuse                Completed   Interagency report (Allegations                  Same as for Forest Service
                                                                Revhew Task Force~Flnal Report) was Issued
                                                                March24,  lYt(Y

                                                                 Note The recammendat~~Ins are contaIned I” a report          entItledFinal Report on Fore Management P&y
                                                                 May 5 1990




                                                                 Page 12                                                          GAO/RCED91-42      Prescribed    Fire Program
Contents


Letter
Appendix I
Status of Forest
Service and Park
Service
Implementation of
Review Team
Recommendations
Appendix II
Seasonal Regular Fire
Personnel in the
Forest Service, 1978 to
1988
Appendix III
Comparison of
Estimated Funds
Needed With Funds
Allocated for Park
Service and Forest
Service Prescribed
Fire Programs, Fiscal
Year 1990
Appendix IV
Major Contributors to
This Report




                          Page 10   GAO/RCED-91-42   Prescribed   Fire Program
                             B-239642




                             number of preparedness levels than the national plan. Resource limita-
                             tions and resistance to the prescribed fire policy also constrain the pro-
                             gram’s implementation

                             While there have been and will always be inherent risks in using fire as
                             a land management tool, there are also benefits to its use. Consequently,
                             we believe that firm dates are needed for completing those actions pre-
                             requisite to implementing an effective prescribed fire program and that
                             monitoring is essential to determine the degree to which resource limita-
                             tions and other factors are constraining the program from reaching its
                             full potential. The information gained from such monitoring would be
                             useful, over the course of the next several years, to the Park Service, the
                             Forest Service, and the Congress in determining risks, benefits, and
                             resources needed to have a prescribed fire program that is both safe and
                             effective in achieving its goals.


                             We recommend that the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture do
Recommendations to           the following:
the Secretaries of the
Interior and             l Establish firm dates for completion of fire management plans for all
                           units where prescribed fire programs are to be reinstituted as well as for
Agriculture                completion of regional interagency preparedness plans.
                         . Direct that the regional interagency preparedness plans include the
                           same number of preparedness levels as the national plan.
                         l Develop an interagtxncy program to monitor and periodically report to
                           the Congress ( 1) the number of opportunities for prescribed natural
                           fires that occur dining a fire season; (2) the number of fires that are
                           allowed to burn and t hc number that are immediately declared wildfires,
                           and the factors (such as weather. funding, and firefighter availability)
                           that required the fires to be declared wild; and (3) the number of pre-
                           scribed natural fires that are later declared wildfires (including the rea-
                           sons for this declaration).
                         * Identify and implement additional actions, such as increased training,
                           that would mitigate the concerns raised by those fire and wilderness
                           managers who arc’relmtant to use fire as a land management tool,


                             We conducted our work from April 1989 through August 1990 at Forest
                             Service and Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.; the Boise
                             Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho; Forest Service regional offices in
                             Montana, IJtah, (‘alifornia, and Oregon; Park Service regional offices in
                             Washington, Colorado, and California; and various national parks and


                             Page 8                                    GAO/RCED-9142   Prescribed   Fire Program
B-239642




firefighters in the Forest Service, which provides about 60 percent of
the federal government’s firefighting resources, dropped from 8,444 to
4,859, or by about 40 percent. (See app. II for details.)

These limits on the firefighting resources available to manage or control
prescribed fires can necessitate the suppression of otherwise beneficial
prescribed fires. To illustrate. during the first X months of 1990, three of
seven prescribed fires in one Forest Service region had to be declared
wildfires because resources to manage them as prescribed fires were
scarce.

The funds available to specifically operate a prescribed fire program
have fallen short of the amount managers say they need. In fiscal year
1990: the Park Service allocated $2.4 million for prescribed fires in the
nation’s parks, or 69 percent of the funds needed, and the Forest Service
allocated only about 6400,000 for prescribed fires in wildernesses, or 1
percent of the funds needed, according to the agencies’regional staffs.
(See app. III.) About 86 percent of the shortfall concerned funds needed
in California for management-ignited fires. Fire experts in both the Park
Service and the Forest Service told us that management-ignited fires are
often needed in parks and wildernesses to ret,urn such fire-dependent
ecosystems to their natural state and to protect private holdings and
wilderness borders, thereby reducing the risk associated with future
prescribed natural fires. Without adequate funds, fire and wilderness
managers committ ~1 to the ecological benefits of fire often lack the
resources required to effectively operate prescribed fire programs.

Not all fire and wilderness field office managers. however, are con-
vinced of the benefits of prescribed fires. Consequently, some still sub-
scribe to the philosophy of suppressing all fires. For example, a Forest
Service report on prescribed fire management states that risks with pre-
scribed fire can b(\ grtaat1and failure is often publicly ridiculed. It noted
that rewards appear to be personal and “success” often not appreciated
internally or by the general public, and that this can provide an incen-
tive to avoid the prescribed natural fire program and declare all such
fires as wildfires.

 These concerns are not unfounded. One of the Review Team’s recom-
 mendations for providing stricter controls over prescribed fire programs
 requires line officers to certify daily that each prescribed natural fire is
 within prescribed limits and that adequate resources are available to




 Page 6                                    GAO/RCED-91-42   Prescribed   Fire Program
                        B-239642




                        and severity of subsequent wildfires. According to the park’s fire man-
                        agement officer, previous prescribed fires were an important factor in
                        helping the Park Service to bring the 1990 fires under control in 1 week
                        with minimal damage to the park’s ecosystem. He said that one of the
                        wildfires was suppressed quickly because Yosemite’s prescribed fire
                        program had reduced the accumulation of fuels and created mosaics of
                        burned and unburned areas that significantly diminished the fire’s
                        spread. size, and complexity.

                        Conversely, because the Forest Service has not implemented prescribed
                        fire programs in wildernesses in California, Oregon, Washington, and the
                        Rocky Mountain areas of Colorado and Wyoming, the buildup of fuels
                        has created some potentially dangerous situations, according to Forest
                        Service officials. One Forest Service fire manager in California com-
                        pared the situation to a time bomb that could explode into catastrophic
                        fires. Similarly, a Rocky Mountain area Forest Service fire specialist told
                        us that the buildup of fuels during decades of fire suppression practice
                        has changed the character of the wildland ecosystem and is creating a
                        dangerous threat to life and property in and around the wildernesses.
                        Roth individuals predicted that future fires would be more intense, more
                        dangerous, and more costly to suppress than they would be if the areas
                        had active prescribed fire programs.


                        The Review Team recommended that no prescribed natural fires be
Planning Delays and     allowed to burn in a park or wilderness until the unit’s fire management
Inconsistencies Limit   plan was approved. The Review Team also recommended that the fed-
Program                 era1 fire management agencies cooperatively develop national as well as
                        regional preparedness plans for curtailing prescribed fires within
Implementation          common boundaries when the danger is high and/or resources to sup-
                        press fires are alrc,ady committed. However, both the Park Service and
                        the Forest Service have been slow to develop the required plans.

                        In late 1988, the Review Team established a goal of having improved
                        individual park and wilderness fire management plans in effect by May
                        1989. However, as of August 1990, the Forest Service had approved fire
                        management plans for only 8 of the 75 wildernesses, or 11 percent,
                        where it plans prescribed fire programs. Similarly, the Park Service had
                        approved fire management plans for only 3 of the 26 parks, or 12 per-
                        cent. where it plans prescribed fire programs.

                        On the basis of Forcsf Service estimates, another 36 wildernesses should
                        have plans appro\,ed by 1992, and the remaining 31 wildernesses should


                        Page 4                                   GAO/RCED-9142   Prescribed   Fire Program
             Implementation of tht revamped prescribed fire program has been lim-
             ited because federal fire management agencies have been slow to
             approve fire management plans for individual parks and wildernesses,
             as well as regional interagency fire preparedness plans. These fire man-
             agement plans are a prerequisite for restarting the program. Moreover,
             some regional preparedness plans are inconsistent with the national
             interagency preparedness plan, which was approved in April 1990.
             Additionally. the prescribed fire program faces both resource limitations
             and resistance by some fire and wilderness managers. The funds avail-
             able to manage a prescribed fire program fall far short of the amount
             managers say they med. Also, some fire and wilderness field office
             managers still subscribe to the philosophy of suppressing all fires.

             Although the need to monitor resource requirements for fully imple-
             menting the revamped prescribed fire program has been recognized by
             fire managers, neither the Park Service nor the Forest Service has
             undertaken such an effort.


             For almost a century. the federal government’s general policy was to
Background   suppress all fires on federal lands.:! However, fire experts and research
             findings on the sub,jrct agree that fire is beneficial-even essential-to
             wildlands, and that, by suppressing all fires, the government had inter-
             fered with nature. Fire returns valuable nutrients to the soil, opens
             overgrown areas to sunlight, and allows new growth that provides food
             and habitat for variolrs animal species. Fire also removes dead wood and
             other debris-fuels that can kindle larger, more dangerous fires-from
             the forest floor. In addition. fire can create a mosaic of burned and
             unburned areas, resulting in natural breaks in the landscape that reduce
             the potential for c,atastrophic wildfires.

             From the 1950s to the early 197Os, National Park Service managers
             experimented with prescribed fire programs, which allow fire to play its
             natural role in parks and wildernesses so that its ecological benefits are
             realized. Hy 1972. both the National Park Service and the Forest Service
             had formally adopted the policy of using fire as a tool to achieve land
             management objcc,ti\ es. These objectives include improving wildlife




             rage 2                                   GAO/RCED91-42   Prescribed   Fire Program