oversight

Western National Forests: A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-04-02.

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

                 United States General Accounting Office

GAO              Report to the Subcommittee on Forests
                 and Forest Health, Committee on
                 Resources, House of Representatives


April 1999
                 WESTERN NATIONAL
                 FORESTS
                 A Cohesive Strategy is
                 Needed to Address
                 Catastrophic Wildfire
                 Threats




GAO/RCED-99-65
      United States
GAO   General Accounting Office
      Washington, D.C. 20548

      Resources, Community, and
      Economic Development Division

      B-281890

      April 2, 1999

      The Honorable Helen Chenoweth
      Chairman, Subcommittee on Forests
        and Forest Health
      Committee on Resources
      House of Representative

      Dear Madam Chairman:

      In response to your request and as agreed with your office, this report describes (1) the extent
      and seriousness of problems related to the health of national forests in the interior West, (2) the
      status of efforts by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service to address the most serious
      of these problems, and (3) barriers to successfully addressing these problems and options for
      overcoming them. The report contains a recommendation to the Secretary of Agriculture for
      developing a more cohesive strategy to address growing threats to national forest resources and
      nearby communities from catastrophic wildfires.

      We are sending copies of this report to the appropriate congressional committees; the
      Honorable Dan Glickman, the Secretary of Agriculture; and the Honorable Michael Dombeck,
      the Chief of the Forest Service. We will also make copies available to others upon request.

      Please call me at (202) 512-9775 if you or your staff have any questions about this report. Major
      contributors to this report are listed in appendix II.

      Sincerely yours,




      Barry T. Hill,
      Associate Director, Energy Resources,
        and Science Issues
Executive Summary


             National forests of the dry, interior portion of the western United States
Purpose      that are managed by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service have
             undergone significant changes over the last century and a half, becoming
             much denser, with fewer large trees and many more small, tightly spaced
             trees and underbrush. These changes have raised concerns about the
             current health of these forests and their continued ability to provide for
             sustained levels of uses, including timber and wildlife habitat, by future
             generations of Americans, as required by law. In response to a request
             from the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, House Committee
             on Resources, GAO examined issues related to the health of these forests.
             In this report, GAO discusses (1) the extent and seriousness of
             forest-health-related problems on national forests of the interior West,
             (2) the status of efforts by the Forest Service to address the most serious
             of these problems, and (3) barriers to successfully addressing these
             problems and options for overcoming them.


             The Forest Service manages about 155 national forests covering
Background   192 million acres of land—nearly 9 percent of the nation’s total surface
             area. About 70 percent of these lands are located in the dry, interior
             portions of the western United States. Laws guiding the management of
             the national forests require them to be managed under the principles of
             multiple use and sustained yield to meet the diverse needs of the American
             people. Under the multiple-use principle, the Forest Service is required to
             plan for six renewable surface uses—outdoor recreation, rangeland,
             timber, watersheds and water flows, wilderness, and wildlife and fish.
             Under the sustained-yield principle, the agency is required to manage its
             lands to provide high levels of these uses to current users while sustaining
             undiminished the lands’ ability to produce these uses for future
             generations.

             To carry out this mission, the Forest Service has adopted a management
             approach that recognizes that ensuring the long-term productivity of the
             land for these uses requires sustaining forest health. Although definitions
             of forest health vary, scientists believe a useful method for assessing it is
             to compare the current ecological conditions of a forest—especially the
             conditions of its tree stands—with the range of past ecological conditions
             it has exhibited. This historical range indicates the variation over time in
             conditions that normally occur in response to common local, natural
             disturbances, such as fires, floods, windstorms, or droughts, and provides
             a basis for identifying the forest’s capacity to provide for different uses
             over time.



             Page 2                                GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                   Executive Summary




                   Historically, tree stands on the forests of the interior West have differed in
                   composition and structure from those found elsewhere. These differences
                   were largely attributable to the region’s dry climate and varied elevations.
                   In this setting, frequent low-intensity wildfires periodically removed
                   undergrowth and smaller trees from many of the region’s lower-elevation
                   forests. In recent years, changes in the condition of these
                   forests—including changes in tree stand density, species composition, and
                   insect and disease infestation levels—have led some to call these forests
                   unhealthy. The condition of these forests is of great public interest
                   because their recreational and aesthetic values have led to population
                   increases along their boundaries in recent years.


                   The most extensive and serious problem related to the health of national
Results in Brief   forests in the interior West is the overaccumulation of vegetation, which
                   has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable, and
                   catastrophically destructive wildfires. According to the Forest Service,
                   39 million acres on national forests in the interior West are at high risk of
                   catastrophic wildfire. Past management practices, especially the Forest
                   Service’s decades-old policy of putting out wildfires on the national
                   forests, disrupted the historical occurrence of frequent low-intensity fires,
                   which had periodically removed flammable undergrowth without
                   significantly damaging larger trees. Because this normal cycle of fire was
                   disrupted, vegetation has accumulated, creating high levels of fuels for
                   catastrophic wildfires and transforming much of the region into a
                   tinderbox. The number of large wildfires, and of acres burned by them, has
                   increased over the last decade, as have the costs of attempting to put them
                   out. These fires not only compromise the forests’ ability to provide timber,
                   outdoor recreation, clean water, and other resources but they also pose
                   increasingly grave risks to human health, safety, property, and
                   infrastructure, especially along the boundaries of forests where population
                   has grown significantly in recent years.

                   During the 1990s, the Forest Service began to address the unintended
                   consequences of its policy of putting out wildfires. In 1997, it announced
                   its goal to improve forest health by resolving the problems of
                   uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfires on national forests by the end of
                   fiscal year 2015. To accomplish this goal, it has (1) initiated a program to
                   monitor forest health, (2) refocused its wildland fire management program
                   to increase the number of acres on which it reduces the accumulated
                   vegetation that forms excessive fuels; and (3) restructured its budget to
                   better ensure that funds are available for reducing these fuels. The



                   Page 3                                GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                            Executive Summary




                            Congress has supported the agency’s efforts by increasing the funds for
                            reducing fuels and authorizing a multiyear program to better assess
                            problems and solutions.

                            However, because it lacks adequate data, the Forest Service has not yet
                            developed a cohesive strategy for addressing several factors that present
                            significant barriers to improving the health of the national forests by
                            reducing fuels. As a result, many acres of national forests in the interior
                            West may remain at high risk of uncontrollable wildfire at the end of fiscal
                            year 2015. Efforts to reduce accumulated fuels can adversely affect the
                            Forest Service’s achievement of other stewardship objectives. For
                            example, controlled fires can be used to reduce fuels, but (1) such fires
                            may get out of control, and (2) the smoke they produce can cause
                            significant air pollution. As a result, mechanical methods, including
                            commercial timber harvesting, will often be necessary to remove
                            accumulated fuels. However, mechanical removals are problematic
                            because the Forest Service’s (1) incentives tend to focus efforts on areas
                            that may not present the highest fire hazards and (2) timber sales and
                            other contracting procedures are not designed for removing vast amounts
                            of materials with little or no commercial value. As a result, removing
                            accumulated fuels may cost the Forest Service hundreds of millions of
                            dollars annually. But the problem is so extensive that even this level of
                            effort may not be adequate to prevent many catastrophic fires over the
                            next few decades. This report recommends the development of a cohesive
                            strategy to reduce accumulated fuels on national forests of the interior
                            West in an effort to limit the threat of catastrophic wildfire.



Principal Findings

Catastrophic Wildfires      Tree stands on national forests of the interior West have grown much
Threaten Forest Resources   denser in recent decades, have undergone shifts in species composition,
and Communities             and have experienced increases in some insect and disease infestations.
                            These conditions, often considered indicators of poor forest health,
                            jeopardize the ability of these forests to sustain wildlife habitat as well as
                            timber production. In addition, they pose a more immediate problem–the
                            threat of catastrophic wildfires. After declining fairly steadily for 75 years,
                            the average number of acres burned by wildfires annually on national
                            forests began to rise over the last decade, nearly quadrupling to about




                            Page 4                                GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Executive Summary




three-quarters of a million acres per year. Virtually all of this rise is
attributable to the increasing number of very large fires.

Scientists and agency officials believe that this increase in large, intense,
uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires is in large part
the result of the Forest Service’s decades-old policy of putting out
wildfires on national forests. This policy disrupted the historical
occurrence of frequent, low-intensity fires in many areas of the interior
West. Such fires periodically removed smaller live and downed vegetation,
preventing accumulations that could result in larger fires. But as
vegetation has accumulated, fires have become larger and more difficult
and expensive to put out. The average annual costs of attempting to put
out these fires grew by 150 percent, from $134 million in fiscal year 1986 to
$335 million in fiscal year 1994 (in constant 1994 dollars). The costs of
preparedness, including the costs of maintaining a readiness force to fight
the fires, also rose, from $189 million in fiscal year 1992 to $326 million in
fiscal year 1997—an increase of about 70 percent.

Outside experts and Forest Service officials generally agree that increased
fire suppression efforts will not be successful because such inevitable,
large, intense wildfires are generally impossible for firefighters to stop and
are only extinguished by rainfall or when there is no more material to
burn. They are concerned that, in the future, such fires will prevent the
Forest Service from meeting its mission requirement to sustain the
national forests’ multiple uses because the fires will likely damage soils,
habitat, and watershed functioning for many generations or even
permanently.

In recent years, the number of people living along the boundaries of the
national forests has grown significantly. As a result, the increasing
numbers of larger, more intense fires pose grave hazards to human health,
safety, property, and infrastructure in these areas, which are referred to as
“wildland/urban interface” areas. Not only do the fires take lives, but
also, because the smoke from them contains substantial amounts of fine
particulate matter and other hazardous pollutants, they can pose
substantial health risks to people living in the wildland/urban interface. In
addition, the fires threaten to damage infrastructure, such as the reservoirs
that provide water to these nearby populations. According to the Forest
Service, maintaining current funding levels for preparedness, as is now
planned, will result in increased risks of injuries and loss of life to
firefighters and the public. Experts believe that the “window of




Page 5                                 GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                             Executive Summary




                             opportunity” for taking management action is only about 10 to 25 years
                             before catastrophic wildfires become widespread.


Recent Actions to Address    Besides increasing preparedness and suppression efforts over the last few
Catastrophic Wildfires Are   years, the Forest Service has taken a number of important steps to address
Important but May Be Too     the growing threat of wildfires. In particular, in 1995, it refocused its fire
                             management program to reduce accumulated fuels. In 1997, the Chief of
Little, Too Late             the Forest Service adopted an internal agency recommendation to
                             increase the number of acres on which fuels are reduced from about
                             570,000 acres to 3 million acres annually by fiscal year 2005 and to
                             continue this level until the year 2015. However, GAO’s analysis of the
                             agency’s initial plans and data indicate that even this level of effort may
                             leave about 10 million acres of the current 39 million acres at high risk of
                             catastrophic wildfire.

                             The Forest Service may not be able to address all of the acres needing
                             attention for several reasons. First, although the agency has announced its
                             intent to give priority to threats in the wildland/urban interface, its funds
                             for reducing fuels are currently allocated substantially to maintaining low
                             fuel levels on forests in other regions with less serious conditions so that
                             conditions there do not become as hazardous as in the interior West. For
                             this same reason, a significant portion of the future funds for reducing
                             fuels will have to be allocated to those other regions. In addition, the
                             agency is hampered in systematically implementing its priority for
                             reducing fuels in the wildland/urban interface because it has only recently
                             begun to define and map these areas. Finally, the agency’s fiscal year 2000
                             budget proposal provides the same level of funding for reducing fuels as
                             the previous fiscal year’s budget, meaning that, with rising costs, the
                             agency will reduce fuels on fewer, rather than more, acres as initially
                             planned.

                             In 1998 and 1999, the Congress authorized two efforts supporting the
                             Forest Service’s efforts—the Joint Fire Science Program and a set of
                             “stewardship contracting demonstration projects.” The Joint Fire Science
                             Program is responsible for developing consistent information on
                             accumulated fuels and ways to reduce them. The data being developed
                             under the program are being used initially to map the locations of existing
                             risks from accumulated fuels. This and other research activities of the
                             Joint Fire Science Program may take 10 years to complete. Several more
                             years may be required to incorporate all the lessons learned into revised
                             forest plans. The stewardship contracting demonstration projects are



                             Page 6                                GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                         Executive Summary




                         using alternative contracting procedures for working with nonfederal
                         partners to demonstrate mechanical methods of removing materials
                         (including timber harvesting) to reduce accumulated fuels. However, this
                         program has also just begun. Lessons learned from the program can be
                         incorporated into an agencywide strategic approach if a consistent method
                         for evaluating the results of the demonstration projects is devised, but
                         such an evaluation methodology has not yet been developed.


A Cohesive Strategy Is   Efforts to address catastrophic wildfires face several barriers, including
Needed for Addressing    the fact that most methods of reducing fuels can be difficult to reconcile
Numerous Barriers to     with agencies’ other responsibilities. For instance, many agency officials
                         told GAO they do not believe it is possible to set controlled fires to reduce
Effective Action         fuels on a scale replicating that of natural fires and still meet air quality
                         standards under the Clean Air Act. The Forest Service and the
                         Environmental Protection Agency are involved in a 3-year experiment to
                         better determine whether and how it will be possible to reconcile
                         controlled burning and these air quality standards. Moreover, because of
                         climatic conditions and the density of tree stands, the danger of fire’s
                         escaping from such controlled burning is often too high in many areas for
                         this method to be used. Mechanically removing fuels (through commercial
                         timber harvesting and other means) can also have adverse effects on
                         wildlife habitat and water quality in many areas. Officials told GAO that,
                         because of these effects, a large-scale expansion of commercial timber
                         harvesting alone for removing materials would not be feasible.

                         However, because the Forest Service relies on the timber program for
                         funding many of its other activities, including reducing fuels, it has often
                         used this program to address the wildfire problem. The difficulty with
                         such an approach, however, is that the lands with commercially valuable
                         timber are often not those with the greatest wildfire hazards. Additionally,
                         there are problems with the incentives in the fuel reduction program.
                         Currently, managers are rewarded for the number of acres on which they
                         reduce fuels, not for reducing fuels on the lands with the highest fire
                         hazards. Because reducing fuels in areas with greater hazards is often
                         more expensive—meaning that fewer acres can be completed with the
                         same funding level—managers have an incentive not to undertake efforts
                         on such lands.

                         Moreover, the agency’s current statutorily defined contracting procedures
                         for commercial timber sales—as well as for service contracts that do not
                         involve selling timber but are let simply for the service of removing excess



                         Page 7                               GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                    Executive Summary




                    fuels—were not designed to (1) facilitate the systematic removal of large
                    volumes of low-value material over a number of years, (2) readily combine
                    funds for conducting timber sales with funds for reducing accumulated
                    fuels, or (3) allow contractors to retain this low-value material to partially
                    offset the costs of its removal. Because of the combined (1) need to
                    perform costly mechanical removals, (2) lack of value for the materials,
                    and (3) lack of contracting procedures designed to facilitate their removal,
                    GAO estimates that the cost to the Forest Service to reduce fuels on the
                    39 million acres at high risk could be as much as $12 billion between now
                    and the end of fiscal year 2015, or an average of about $725 million
                    annually. This is more than 10 times the current level of funding for
                    reducing fuels, and the agency, contrary to its earlier plans, has requested
                    no increase in this funding for fiscal year 2000.

                    The Forest Service has not yet devised a cohesive strategy to address
                    these barriers to reducing excessive national forest fuel levels and
                    associated catastrophic wildfires. It has not done so, in large part, because
                    it lacks basic data on, for example, the (1) locations and levels of existing
                    excessive fuel accumulations, (2) effects on other resources of different
                    methods of reducing fuels, and (3) relative cost-effectiveness of these
                    different methods, all of which are needed to identify quantitative
                    measures and goals for fuels reducing fuels. Nor has the Forest Service
                    identified a firm schedule for completing activities that will provide it with
                    such data. The lack of such performance measures and goals, and of a
                    cohesive strategy and schedule for developing and accomplishing them,
                    makes it difficult for the agency to be held accountable for achieving its
                    statutorily mandated mission of sustaining multiple uses.


                    We recommend that the Secretary of Agriculture direct the Chief of the
Recommendation to   Forest Service to develop, and formally communicate to the Congress, a
the Secretary of    cohesive strategy for reducing and maintaining accumulated fuels on
Agriculture         national forests of the interior West at acceptable levels. We further
                    recommend that this strategy include (1) specific steps for acquiring the
                    data needed to establish meaningful performance measures and goals for
                    fuel reduction, (b) identifying ways of better reconciling different fuel
                    reduction approaches with other stewardship objectives, and (c)
                    identifying changes in incentives and statutorily defined contracting
                    procedures that would better facilitate the accomplishment of fuel
                    reduction goals; (2) a schedule indicating dates for completing each of
                    these steps; and (3) estimates of the potential and likely overall and annual




                    Page 8                                GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                  Executive Summary




                  costs of accomplishing this strategy based on different options identified
                  in the strategy as being available for doing so.


                  The Forest Service reviewed a draft of this report and generally agreed
Agency Comments   with GAO’s findings, conclusions, and recommendation. In its comments,
                  the agency stated that the report is very comprehensive, does a good job of
                  covering the problem, and effectively portrays the conditions found on
                  many national forest throughout the interior West. The agency agrees that
                  it has not advanced a cohesive strategy to treat all 39 million acres of
                  national forestlands at risk of catastrophic fire but says that it is
                  committed to developing one in a timely manner and (1) has a general
                  strategy for reducing wildfire threats, (2) is currently developing a more
                  specific planning process and tools for completing this strategy, (3) will
                  make significant progress in eliminating these threats, and (4) has realistic
                  time frames for accomplishing these tasks. The agency also listed in its
                  comments several initiatives that it has under way or planned to complete
                  its more cohesive strategy. According to the agency, these initiatives will
                  be important in reducing threats from catastrophic wildfires.

                  This report recognizes that the Forest Service has a general strategy and
                  has undertaken and is planning several initiatives to develop a more
                  cohesive strategy. However, GAO believes that the general strategy lacks
                  cohesiveness because it does not address several barriers that the Forest
                  Service faces in undertaking its planned fuel reduction activities. Nor is it
                  clear from the Forest Service’s comments how its current and planned
                  initiatives, individually and collectively, will provide this cohesiveness. GAO
                  also believes that the agency needs to be accountable for accomplishing
                  the strategy. For these reasons, GAO believes that the agency’s more
                  cohesive strategy should include, as specific steps, those actions in its
                  current and planned initiatives that it believes will enable it to address
                  these barriers, as well as a schedule for completing them. GAO believes that
                  this delineation of specific actions and a schedule will provide a practical
                  framework and process for accomplishing the agency’s intentions. The
                  agency also provided a number of technical and clarifying comments. GAO
                  revised the draft report where appropriate in response to the agency’s
                  comments. The agency’s comments and GAO’s responses to them are found
                  in appendix I of this report.




                  Page 9                                GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Contents



Executive Summary                                                                                      2


Chapter 1                                                                                             12
                         The Forest Service’s Mission Is Multiple Use and Sustained Yield             12
Introduction             Sustaining Ecosystems Is the Agency’s Management Approach                    12
                           for Sustaining Multiple Uses
                         Controversies Exist Over the Health of Western National Forests              13
                         Forest Health Can Be Assessed by Comparing Present to Past                   14
                           Forest Conditions
                         Forests of the Interior West Have Distinctive Ecological                     14
                           Characteristics
                         Recent Population Growth Near Interior Western National                      18
                           Forests Has Created a “Wildland/Urban Interface”
                         Objectives, Scope, and Methodology                                           19


Chapter 2                                                                                             22
                         National Forests in the Interior West Have Several Health                    22
Catastrophic Wildfires     Problems
Threaten Resources       Catastrophic Wildfires Are a Serious Consequence of Current                  27
                           Tree Stand Conditions in the Interior Western National Forests
and Communities
Chapter 3                                                                                             36
                         The Agency Has Recently Taken Important Steps to Address                     36
Recent Agency              Catastrophic Wildfires
Actions to Address       The Congress Has Increasingly Supported the Agency’s Efforts                 37
                         Actions Planned to Date May Not Be Sufficient or Timely Enough               38
Catastrophic Wildfires     to Achieve Agency Goals
Are Important but
May Be Too Little, Too
Late
Chapter 4                                                                                             41
                         Several Barriers Exist to Effective Agency Action                            41
The Agency Lacks a       The Agency Lacks a Cohesive Strategy for Addressing Barriers                 46
Cohesive Strategy for
Addressing Several
Barriers to Effective
Action



                         Page 10                             GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                  Contents




Chapter 5                                                                                      48
                  Conclusions                                                                  48
Conclusions and   Recommendation to the Secretary of Agriculture                               49
Recommendation
Appendixes        Appendix I: Comments From the Forest Service                                 50
                  Appendix II: Major Contributors to This Report                               60


Figures           Figure 1.1: The Interior West                                                15
                  Figure 1.2: Location of Frequent Fire Forests in the Interior West           17
                  Figure 1.3: Population Growth in Relation to National Forests,               19
                    1980-96
                  Figure 2.1: 1909 Photograph of Typical Open Ponderosa Pine                   23
                    Stand in the Bitterroot National Forest In Idaho
                  Figure 2.2: 1989 Photograph Taken From the Same Spot in the                  24
                    Bitterroot National Forest in the Same Direction
                  Figure 2.3: Number of National Forest Acres Burned by Fire,                  28
                    1910-97
                  Figure 2.4: Number and Total Acres Burned by Large Wildfires on              29
                    All National Forests, 1984-95
                  Figure 2.5: Western Forestlands at Medium and High Risk of                   31
                    Catastrophic Fire
                  Figure 2.6: Forest Service’s Expenditures for Wildfire                       33
                    Suppression, Fiscal Years 1986-94
                  Figure 2.7: Forest Service’s Expenditures for Wildfire                       34
                    Preparedness, Fiscal Years 1992-97




                  Abbreviations

                  USDA       U.S.Department of Agriculture


                  Page 11                             GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 1

Introduction


                       The Forest Service, an agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture
The Forest Service’s   (USDA), manages 155 national forests covering about 192 million acres of
Mission Is Multiple    land, or about 9 percent of the nation’s land surface, under the leadership
Use and Sustained      of the Chief of the Forest Service, who reports to the Under Secretary of
                       Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment. National forests are
Yield                  managed under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield to meet
                       the diverse needs of the American people. Under the multiple-use
                       principle, the Forest Service is required to plan for six renewable surface
                       uses—outdoor recreation, rangeland, timber, watersheds and water flows,
                       wilderness, and wildlife and fish. Under the sustained-yield principle, the
                       agency is required to manage its lands to provide high levels of these uses
                       to current users while sustaining undiminished the lands’ ability to
                       produce these uses for future generations. It implements these principles
                       using a planning mechanism mandated by the National Forest
                       Management Act, which requires each forest or group of small forests to
                       develop a plan for all uses. This plan must be revised at least every 15
                       years. This plan, together with the individual projects undertaken to
                       implement it, must comply with various environmental laws establishing
                       standards or procedures designed to protect individual resources, such as
                       threatened and endangered species and water and air quality.1


                       In 1992, the Forest Service adopted a management approach for sustaining
Sustaining             multiple forest uses called ecosystem management. This management
Ecosystems Is the      approach recognizes that protecting individual resources under the
Agency’s Management    various environmental laws, as well as ensuring the long-term ability of the
                       land to produce goods and services, requires sustaining the functioning of
Approach for           ecosystems.2 Ecosystems comprise interdependent biological components
Sustaining Multiple    (plants and animals, including humans), that interact with their physical
                       environment (soil, water, and air) to form distinct ecological units that
Uses                   span both federal and nonfederal lands. Through these interactions, the
                       components of ecosystems tend to become arranged in distinctive kinds of
                       biological structures, such as different types of forest tree stands. These
                       different ecosystem structures, in turn, are capable of providing different
                       kinds and levels of resources for human use, including timber or water.

                       Natural disturbances, such as fires, floods, windstorms, or droughts, can
                       temporarily affect ecosystem structures. However, these structures are

                       1
                       For a fuller description of the agency’s decision-making process, see Forest Service Decision-Making:
                       A Framework for Improving Performance (GAO/RCED-97-71, Apr. 29, 1997).
                       2
                       For a fuller description of ecosystem management, see Ecosystem Management: Additional Actions
                       Needed to Adequately Test a Promising Approach (GAO/RCED-94-111, Aug. 16, 1994).



                       Page 12                                          GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                      Chapter 1
                      Introduction




                      generally resilient over time, recovering and persisting because they have
                      evolved to survive the particular patterns of disturbance common to a
                      given geographical area. Human technology, however, can create rapid,
                      intense, or large-scale disruptions in ecosystem structures. A disruption,
                      such as the elimination of an important biological component, can
                      sometimes alter an ecosystem structure beyond its ability to recover
                      quickly or at all, making the ecosystem unstable or unsustainable and
                      ultimately transforming it into a different kind of ecosystem with different
                      kinds of biological structures. Such a changed ecosystem will provide
                      different kinds or levels of uses from those that humans previously
                      enjoyed and expected. In 1997, the Forest Service identified, as a
                      mission-related, strategic goal, achieving healthy and sustainable
                      ecosystems through conserving and restoring ecosystem structures. A
                      specific objective under this broad goal was restoring or protecting the
                      ecological conditions of forested ecosystems to maintain their
                      components and their capacity for self-renewal.


                      In recent years, several analyses of conditions on national forests of the
Controversies Exist   interior West by agency and outside experts have cited evidence of
Over the Health of    increased levels of insect and disease infestations; changes in the
Western National      composition of tree and other forest plant species, including invasion by
                      nonnative plants; increases in the density of tree stands and undergrowth;
Forests               and increases in the number of small trees.3 These tree stand conditions
                      have sometimes been referred to collectively as “forest health” problems.
                      At the same time, the term “forest health” has been applied to concerns
                      over declining species, habitat, and watershed conditions on national
                      forests, and some environmental groups have argued that forest health
                      should incorporate these concerns. Numerous administrative appeals and
                      judicial actions have been filed by these groups out of concern that efforts
                      to improve the health of tree stands—which would be implemented, in
                      part, through timber harvesting—may exacerbate problems affecting
                      species, habitat, or watersheds. The Forest Service has also noted a lack of
                      scientific consensus on, or community awareness and acceptance of, the
                      actions needed to address forest health problems, the size of the areas
                      needing to be addressed, and the time frames for taking action. Thus,
                      despite the widespread use of the term in recent years, there is little
                      agreement on a definition of forest health, a standard for measuring it, the
                      appropriate areas and time frames for addressing it, and the actions
                      needed to achieve it. Many Forest Service staff and others feel that,

                      3
                       e.g., Task Force Report on Sustaining Long-Term Forest Health and Productivity, Society of American
                      Foresters (Bethesda, Md.: 1993); and Forest Health and Fire Danger in Inland Western Forests:
                      Proceedings of the Conference, Spokane, WA, September 8-9, 1994 (Spokane: Harman Press, 1995).



                      Page 13                                         GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                          Chapter 1
                          Introduction




                          because of its vagueness and subjectivity, the concept is often difficult to
                          use effectively.


                          Forest Service and outside scientists believe that a useful method of
Forest Health Can Be      assessing a forest’s health and functioning is to compare the current
Assessed by               conditions of its components and structures to the range of conditions
Comparing Present to      they have exhibited in the past. This range–within which conditions have
                          varied over time in response to disturbance patterns common to a given
Past Forest               area—is referred to by scientists as their historical range of variability.
Conditions
                          Examining the historical range of variability of a forest’s tree stands is
                          believed to be an especially useful starting point for analyzing the forest’s
                          overall health and functioning because (1) tree stands are the defining
                          biological structures of forested versus other kinds of ecosystems and
                          (2) the conditions of these structures greatly determine the capacity of a
                          forest not only to produce timber, but also to maintain soils, watershed
                          conditions, and wildlife and fish habitats. The historical range of
                          variability of a forest’s tree stands is identified by examining historical and
                          biological evidence—such as early pioneers’ reports, old photographs, tree
                          rings, and soil layers—to discover what biological components and
                          structures have characterized the forested ecosystem at different times in
                          its natural history.


                          About 60 percent of all national forests and about 70 percent of their total
Forests of the Interior   acreage are located in the dry, inland portion of the western United States
West Have Distinctive     (hereafter referred to as the “interior West”). This region of the country,
Ecological                depicted in figure 1.1, generally extends north and south from the
                          Canadian to the Mexican border and east and west from the Black Hills in
Characteristics           South Dakota to the Cascade mountain range in Washington and Oregon
                          and to the southwestern deserts and the Coastal range in California.




                          Page 14                               GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                Chapter 1
                                Introduction




Figure 1.1: The Interior West




      1




                                Source: Forest Service.




                                Distinct ecological processes—driven largely by climate and
                                topography—shaped the forests of the interior West, producing tree stands
                                that differed in composition and structure from those in other regions of
                                the country. Historically, frequent, low-intensity wildfires played a major
                                role in determining the dispersion and succession of tree stands in the
                                interior West. A lack of rainfall across the interior West generally also




                                Page 15                             GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 1
Introduction




slows the decomposition of dead and downed trees and woody material
there.

The most common type of forested lands on national forests of the interior
West are at warm, dry, lower elevations and are generally dominated by
ponderosa pine. These are known as “frequent fire interval” forests
because, before pioneers settled in these areas, fire historically occurred
in them about every 5 to 30 years. Because frequent fires kept these forests
clear of undergrowth, fuels seldom accumulated, and the fires were
generally of low intensity, largely consuming grasses and undergrowth and
not igniting the highly combustible crowns, or tops, of large trees. Figure
1.2 shows the widespread distribution of these “frequent fire interval”
forests.




Page 16                             GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                            Chapter 1
                                            Introduction




Figure 1.2: Location of Frequent Fire Forests in the Interior West




                                                                                         (Figure notes on next page)


                                            Page 17                  GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                        Chapter 1
                        Introduction




                        Source: Forest Service.




                        In contrast, fire historically occurred only about every 40 to 200 years in
                        the cooler, moister, forests at higher elevations, such as those around
                        Yellowstone National Park, which are generally dominated by lodgepole
                        pine. These forests historically developed more dense stands, and fires
                        there generally killed nearly all of the trees.


                        Finally, because the national forests of the interior West are attractive for
Recent Population       recreation and aesthetic enjoyment, population has grown rapidly along
Growth Near Interior    their boundaries in recent years, creating an area termed the
Western National        “wildland/urban interface.” Figure 1.3 shows the location of areas in the
                        interior West with recent high population growth in relation to the region’s
Forests Has Created a   national forests.
“Wildland/Urban
Interface”




                        Page 18                              GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                        Chapter 1
                                        Introduction




Figure 1.3: Population Growth in
Relation to National Forests, 1980-96




                                                              National forests
                                                              Counties in interior west with above average population growth (>25%)



                                        Source: Forest Service and U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.




                                        As figure 1.3 shows, areas with higher population growth rates in the
                                        interior West over the period are generally concentrated close to national
                                        forests.


                                        In response to a request from the Chairman, Subcommittee on Forests and
Objectives, Scope,                      Forest Health, we examined (1) the extent and seriousness of problems
and Methodology                         related to the health of national forests in the interior West, (2) the status
                                        of efforts by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service to address the
                                        most serious of these problems, and (3) barriers to successfully addressing
                                        these problems and options for overcoming them.




                                        Page 19                                       GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 1
Introduction




As agreed with the requester, to examine the extent and seriousness of
problems related to the health of national forests in the interior West, we
interviewed and obtained documents from agency officials at Forest
Service headquarters, six regional offices with administrative
responsibility for national forests located in the interior West, nine
selected forests within these regions, and selected agency field research
and analysis units. Our selection of agency field units was based on a
judgmental sample, and the results may not always be representative of
other agency units. The forests we visited included the Idaho Panhandle
National Forest in Idaho, the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests in
Colorado, the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, the Boise National
Forest in Idaho, the Plumas National Forest in California, the
Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California, the Tahoe National Forest in
California, the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, and the Umatilla
National Forest in Oregon and Washington. At these forests, we visited
numerous field locations in several ranger districts. We also visited the
Tahoe Basin Management Unit, a unit that surrounds Lake Tahoe,
straddling the California/Nevada border, and is managed separately.

At many locations, we also interviewed and obtained documents from
representatives of national and local industry and environmental
organizations; other federal agencies; state, local and tribal governments;
and academic and professional forestry policy analysis and technical
experts. We also interviewed and obtained documents from
representatives of American Forests; the Pinchot Institute for
Conservation; the Society of American Foresters; the American Forest and
Paper Association; the Western Governor’s Association; the Wilderness
Society; the Sierra Club; Oregon State University; Colorado State
University; the Universities of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and
Northern Arizona; and the Ecological Society of America. We also
examined numerous statutes, hearing records, regulations, and agency
directives related to forest health issues, as well as legislative proposals,
prior GAO reports, and studies by the Congressional Research Service. In
our field visits, we sometimes also made visual inspections of, and queried
agency officials about, forest conditions, their causes, and their
significance, as well as obtained views on these issues from local outside
parties active in forest issues.

To examine the status of the Forest Service’s efforts to address the most
serious problems related to forest health, we interviewed agency officials
and outside parties, reviewed related agency program and budget data,
and consulted numerous agency and outside studies of agency activities.



Page 20                              GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 1
Introduction




To obtain a better understanding of what was involved in some of these
activities, we also visited several field sites where such activities were
either under way or had recently been completed. We also reviewed
agency technical models and planning documents to assess the adequacy
of prospective agency efforts and strategies and consulted with other
parties to obtain their views on these subjects. As also agreed with the
requester’s office, our review generally covered agency activities since
1993 and was focused on the role of tree stand conditions in forest health.

To examine barriers to successfully addressing problems related to forest
health and options for overcoming them, we reviewed numerous recent
and ongoing draft studies by executive branch, agency headquarters and
field unit, legislative, and outside task forces and commissions, as well as
academic and professional journals, and we interviewed and obtained
documents from agency officials and outside parties. With respect to
estimates of costs for addressing these conditions, we reviewed agency
data, estimates from the Congressional Research Service, and documents
related to the agency’s fiscal year 1998, 1999, and 2000 budgets, as well as
annual performance plan data prepared by the agency in conformance
with the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993. During the
course of our review, we periodically met with agency headquarters staff
and discussed information we had obtained through our work.

Although we did not independently verify the accuracy of the data the
agency provided to us on acreage, conditions, activities, and costs, we did
compare these data with numerous outside analyses and estimates, as well
as discussed factors affecting the data’s accuracy with agency field and
headquarters personnel. We found that those other sources generally
corroborated the data the agency provided to us, and in no instances did
any inconsistencies significantly affect or materially qualify any findings or
conclusions that were based on the agency’s data. Our review was
conducted from October 1997 through March 1999 in accordance with
generally accepted government accounting standards.




Page 21                               GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 2

Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
and Communities

                            According to the Forest Service, about 39 million acres of tree stands on
                            national forests of the interior West are at high risk of catastrophic fire,
                            largely because the agency’s decades-old policy of suppressing historically
                            occurring, periodic, small wildfires has led to unprecedented
                            accumulations of flammable materials. As a result, wildfires have
                            increased in number and size over the last decade and are increasingly
                            difficult and costly to fight. While these conditions threaten the
                            sustainability of forest resources, they also increasingly threaten human
                            health, lives, property, and infrastructure in nearby communities. The
                            window of opportunity for taking corrective action is estimated to be only
                            about 10 to 25 years before widespread, unstoppable wildfires with severe
                            immediate and long-term consequences occur on an unprecedented scale.


                            According to the Forest Service, large areas of national forests in the
National Forests in         interior West are not healthy. A key symptom of their poor health is denser
the Interior West Have      tree stands—i.e., stands with many more small trees, undergrowth, and
Several Health              accumulated dead materials on the ground than were found in the past.
                            Additionally, the proportion of less fire-tolerant species in these tree
Problems                    stands has increased, as has the incidence of some disease and insect
                            infestations. Increased stand densities are often related to these changes
                            in tree species, as is the increased incidence of insects and diseases.


Increased Tree Stand        According to the Forest Service, a significant symptom of poor health on
Density, Changing Species   national forests in the interior West is the much greater density of stands
Composition, and Insect     now than in the past. For example, officials in the Lincoln National Forest
                            told us that high stand density conditions exist on an estimated 79,712
and Disease Infestations    acres—or 35 percent—of its mixed conifer forest; 19,099 acres—or
Indicate Poor Forest        22 percent—of its ponderosa pine forest; and 576,622 acres—or
Health                      55 percent—of its pinyon-juniper forest. The proportion of stands with
                            densely growing, small and medium-sized trees on the Idaho Panhandle
                            National Forest is reported by the agency to be about 50 percent above
                            average historical levels. An estimated 35 to 50 percent of the 700,000
                            acres of mixed conifer and ponderosa pine on the Deschutes National
                            Forest have more trees per acre than normal and are at risk according to
                            agency officials.

                            A 1994 study of scientifically selected sites in Arizona indicated that the
                            estimated density of trees on 70 sites in the Coconino National Forest had
                            greatly increased (from 23 per acre in 1867 to 276 in 1990), as it had on 46
                            sites in the Kaibab National Forest (from 56 trees per acre in 1881 to 851 in



                            Page 22                              GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                         Chapter 2
                                         Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                                         and Communities




                                         1990).4 By another measure, the estimated total cross-sectional area of
                                         trees, measured at 4.5 feet above the ground surface, had grown from
                                         about 25 square feet per acre to about 150 square feet on the first forest
                                         and from about 50 square feet per acre to over 150 square feet on the other
                                         forest over the same time periods.

                                         Figures 2.1 and 2.2, are photographs taken from the same spot on the
                                         Bitterroot National Forest in 1909 and 1989. They illustrate the dramatic
                                         change over the intervening 80 years from the historically more common,
                                         open, large tree structure of such forest stands to the more recent,
                                         typically denser structural conditions dominated by smaller trees.


Figure 2.1: 1909 Photograph of Typical
Open Ponderosa Pine Stand in the
Bitterroot National Forest in Idaho




                                         Source: Forest Service.


                                         4
                                          W.W. Covington and M.M. Moore, “Postsettlement Changes in Natural Fire Regimes” and “Forest
                                         Structure: Ecological Restoration of Old-Growth Ponderosa Pine Forests,” copublished simultaneously
                                         in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry , Vol. 2, No. 1/2 (1994); and Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health
                                         in the Inland West, R. Neil Sampson and David L. Adams, eds. (Binghamton, N.Y.: The Haworth Press,
                                         1994).



                                         Page 23                                          GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                        Chapter 2
                                        Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                                        and Communities




Figure 2.2: 1989 Photograph Taken
From the Same Spot in the Bitterroot
National Forest in the Same Direction




                                        Source: Forest Service.




                                        A second major symptom of health problems on national forests in the
                                        interior West that we visited was a change in the historical composition of
                                        tree species, often to a greater proportion of trees of less fire-tolerant
                                        species. For example, the historically prominent western larch species has
                                        been lost and replaced by other species of trees on 211,000 acres—or
                                        69 percent of its historical acreage—on the Idaho Panhandle National
                                        Forest. Likewise, the ponderosa pine has been replaced by other species
                                        on 76,000 acres—or 67 percent of its historical acreage—on this forest. In
                                        many parts of Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest, ponderosa pine has
                                        also been replaced by Douglas fir and mixed conifers over the last few
                                        decades.

                                        A third major symptom of health problems on national forests in the
                                        interior West is the increase in some insect and disease infestations. For




                                        Page 24                                     GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 2
Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
and Communities




example, on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, round-headed
pine beetles have infested 49,495 acres—or 57 percent—of the forest’s
ponderosa pine, while the western spruce budworm has infested 120,000
acres of its Englemann and blue spruce and Douglas and white fir. In
addition, dwarf mistletoe disease has infested 55,563 acres—or 64
percent—of its ponderosa pine, and 113,875 acres—or about 50
percent—of its Douglas fir. The Douglas fir tussock moth damaged 250,000
acres on the Boise National Forest in Idaho, killing millions of trees. The
Douglas-fir beetle and the fir engraver beetle killed many more trees in this
same forest, and dwarf mistletoe is estimated to infest 119,012 acres—or
33 percent—of the Douglas fir; 78,636 acres—or 10 percent—of the
ponderosa pine; and 43,376 acres—or 50 percent—of the lodgepole pine.
Various defoliating insects infest about 20 percent of the Deschutes
National Forest’s mixed conifer and ponderosa pine forest, and dwarf
mistletoe disease infects about 40 percent of its mixed conifer and
ponderosa pine. Root disease also affects about 20 percent of this forest
and, according to Forest Service officials, it is a major problem on the
Idaho Panhandle National Forest, as it is elsewhere in the interior West.

In addition to these three symptoms of poor forest health, national forests
in the interior West are facing invasions of nonnative plants and diseases
that outcompete and displace native vegetation in many areas. For
example, in the Lincoln National Forest, 12 aggressive nonnative plant
species have been identified as occupying approximately 5,200 acres
across two ranger districts. Forest officials saw such plants spread by
30 percent in the early 1990s and expect this trend to increase. Various
noxious plants, such as knapweeds and thistles, were estimated in 1996 to
cover at least 5,000 acres of the forests and grasslands of the
Arapaho/Roosevelt National Forest, and are expected to nearly triple their
coverage by the year 2000. On the Deschutes National Forest, native
shrubs and plants associated with dominant tree species are being
displaced by invasive nonnative noxious plants at a rate that forest
officials estimate is tripling every year. Similarly, nonnative diseases, to
which many native tree species have thus far evolved little resistance, have
spread. For example, white pine blister rust, a disease accidentally
introduced from Europe in 1910, primarily caused the loss of 656,000
acres—or 90 percent—of the western white pine forests on the Idaho
Panhandle National Forest and 7,900 acres—or 64 percent—of the
whitebark pine forests. The disease has also been found at every surveyed
plot on the Boise National Forest, where the incidence of infection in tree
stands varied and was as high as nearly 70 percent. This same disease was
detected on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico in 1990.



Page 25                                     GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                              Chapter 2
                              Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                              and Communities




Suppression of Historically   As early as the mid-19th century, European American settlers’ activities
Frequent Wildfires Is the     began to affect the interior West’s ecology, introducing changes that
Primary Cause of Many         gradually weakened the health of the region’s national forests. These
                              changes occurred in response to several factors that have generally
Current Tree Stand            excluded fire from these forests, preventing it from playing its historical
Conditions                    role of limiting the forests’ density, clearing undergrowth and downed
                              material, and influencing species composition. These factors include
                              (1) extensive livestock grazing and changes in land use first introduced by
                              European American settlers in the late 1800s, which not only eliminated
                              much of the grass that historically carried fire through the forests’
                              undergrowth but also ended Native Americans practice of setting such
                              fires for hunting game and other purposes; (2) past timber-harvesting
                              methods that selectively removed the larger, more valuable, and more
                              accessible trees or removed all of the trees from a timber-harvesting site at
                              one time (clear-cutting), allowing other species to increase; and
                              (3) invasions by nonnative plants, insects, and diseases. However, while
                              these factors generally laid the groundwork for and set in motion
                              significant changes in these forests’ ecologies, according to several
                              studies, the primary factor currently contributing to unhealthy forests in
                              the region has been the Forest Service’s decades-old policy of suppressing
                              fire on the national forests.5

                              Fire suppression was first practiced to protect early settlements from the
                              risk of uncontrollable wildfires. Later, it was used as an agricultural
                              technique to increase the number of trees available for timber harvesting.
                              But without frequent fires, vegetation accumulated so that many stands
                              have become denser, and less fire-tolerant tree species have become more
                              prevalent. As the forests’ density and composition have changed, stands
                              have become more susceptible to drought and to the incidence of insects
                              and disease, including native ones that have historically played an
                              important role in the evolution—particularly in the decomposition and
                              succession cycles—of forest tree stands. Native insects and diseases
                              sustain the health of forest stands so long as their levels remain within
                              their historical ranges of variability. But contiguous areas of dense stands
                              provide opportunities for insects and diseases to exceed their historical
                              ranges and spread across large areas. In addition, invasions by nonnative
                              plants and diseases have sometimes exacerbated problems arising from
                              the other causes.

                              5
                               For a fuller description of the role of Native American and European settlement in the evolution of
                              interior western national forests and other forestlands in the United States, see Douglas W. MacCleery,
                              American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery, Forest Service and the Forest History
                              Society, FS-540 (Durham, N.C.: 1993) and Stephen J. Pyne, Fire in America: A Cultural History of
                              Wildland and Rural Fire, 1997 ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982).



                              Page 26                                           GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                             Chapter 2
                             Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                             and Communities




Tree Stand Conditions        Current tree stand conditions and the continuing absence of historically
Threaten Forest Resources    occurring frequent wildfires threaten various national forest resources in
                             the interior West. For example, according to a 1998 analysis by the
                             Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, of the 146
                             threatened, endangered, or rare plant species found in the coterminous
                             states for which there is conclusive information on fire effects, 135 species
                             benefit from wildfire or are found in fire-adapted ecosystems.6

                             Furthermore, according to a 1994 Northern Arizona University study,
                             increases in density and changes in species composition alter soil
                             moisture, as well as the availability of nutrients and water for plants and
                             animals, watershed functioning and stream flow, and water quality,
                             affecting both terrestrial and aquatic species. Experts have also expressed
                             concern about the possibility that such changes will accelerate mortality
                             among the remaining older ponderosa pines and other trees.


                             The Forest Service estimates that 39 million acres of national forestlands
Catastrophic Wildfires       in the interior West are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire because of
Are a Serious                denser stands and related conditions. As a result, the number and size of
Consequence of               large, intense fires have grown over the last decade, resulting in higher fire
                             suppression and preparedness costs and greater damage. Such fires, which
Current Tree Stand           are increasingly unstoppable, threaten not only the sustainability of
Conditions in the            national forest resources, but also human health, lives, property, and
                             infrastructure in nearby communities. Experts have estimated that a
Interior Western             window of only 10 to 25 years is available for taking effective action before
National Forests             widespread, long-term damage from such fires occurs.


Catastrophic Wildfires Are   In the currently denser stands of the national forests in the interior West,
Increasing Because of        where many smaller dead and dying trees now often form fuel “ladders” to
Changing Tree Stand          the crowns of larger trees—and where such stands are often continuous
                             rather than separated by stands that have recently been thinned by
Conditions                   fire—wildfires have increasingly become large, intense, and catastrophic.
                             Our analysis of the Forest Service’s data shows that the agency was highly
                             effective in suppressing fires on the national forests for about 75 years
                             after 1910, reducing substantially the number of national forest acres
                             burned annually, over 90 percent of which have been in the interior West.


                             6
                              Bill Leenhouts, “Assessment of Biomass Burning in the Coterminous United States,” Fish and
                             Wildlife Service, Conservation Ecology, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1998), citing analysis of data presented in Effects
                             of Fire on Threatened and Endangered Plants: An Annotated Bibliography, U.S. Department of the
                             Interior, National Biological Service, Information and Technology Report 2 (Washington, D.C.: 1995).



                             Page 27                                            GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                          Chapter 2
                                          Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                                          and Communities




                                          However, figure 2.3 shows that recently the agency’s efforts have been less
                                          effective.



Figure 2.3: Number of National Forest Acres Burned by Fire, 1910-97

   Acres
 1,400,000


 1,200,000


 1,000,000


   800,000


   600,000


   400,000


   200,000


           0
                              1935                     1955                       1975                        1995
                                                       Fiscal year

                                          Note: The number of acres represents the 10-year rolling average at each point. Since 1990,
                                          90 percent of national forest acres burned by fire were in the interior West.

                                          Source: GAO’s presentation of data from the Forest Service.




                                          As figure 2.3 shows, over the last decade, the number of acres of national
                                          forestlands burned by wildfires has begun to increase, reversing the trend
                                          of the previous three-quarters of a century. This is because excessive
                                          accumulated fuels have made fires larger and more intense, as shown in
                                          figure 2.4.




                                          Page 28                                         GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                           Chapter 2
                                           Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                                           and Communities




Figure 2.4: Number and Total Acres Burned by Large Wildfires on All National Forests, 1984-95

Fires                                                                                                              Acres
100                                                                                                            1,000,000


 80                                                                                                            800,000


 60                                                                                                            600,000


 40                                                                                                            400,000


 20                                                                                                            200,000


   0                                                                                                           0
       '84   '85     '86     '87     '88     '89     '90         '91       '92       '93      '94        '95
                                             Fiscal year

                                                 Fires Acres


                                           Note:10 year rolling average. Since 1990, 91 percent of the large fires (those burning 1,000 acres
                                           or more) and 96 percent of the acres burned were in the interior West.

                                           Source: GAO’s presentation of data from the Forest Service.




                                           As shown in figure 2.4, since 1984, the average annual number of fires on
                                           national forests that burn 1,000 acres or more has increased from 25 to 80,
                                           and the number of total acres burned (including acres on nearby lands) by
                                           these fires has more than quadrupled, from 164,000 to 765,000. Since 1990,
                                           91 percent of these large fires and 96 percent of the acres they burned
                                           were in the interior West.

                                           In 1995, the Forest Service estimated that 39 million acres, or about
                                           one-third of all lands it manages in the interior West—more than ever
                                           known before and more than in all other regions of the country
                                           combined—are now at high risk of large, uncontrollable, catastrophic




                                           Page 29                                          GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 2
Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
and Communities




wildfire. According to agency officials, virtually all of these lands are
located in the lower-elevation, frequent-fire forests of the interior West
that have historically been dominated by ponderosa pine. These forests
are particularly susceptible to such fires because, as stated in a 1995
internal agency report,7 far more cycles of fire (up to 10) were suppressed
in these forests than in the higher-elevation, lodgepole-pine-dominated
forests—where generally only one or no fire cycle was suppressed. Figure
2.5 shows locations in the interior West identified by experts outside the
Forest Service where the risks of fire have been rated medium or high.
Areas currently at medium risk are included because fuels can further
accumulate on them so that, over time, they may become high-risk areas.




7
 Fire Economics Assessment Report, USDA, Forest Service (Washington, D.C.: 1995).



Page 30                                        GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                          Chapter 2
                                          Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                                          and Communities




Figure 2.5: Western Forestlands at Medium and High Risk of Catastrophic Fire




            Medium Risk

            High Risk




                                          Source: American Forests.




                                          Page 31                                     GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                              Chapter 2
                              Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                              and Communities




Catastrophic Wildfires        Compared with other forest fires, catastrophic wildfires burn many more
Threaten the Sustainability   acres, destroy much more timber and wildlife habitat, and subject exposed
of Forest Resources and       soils to substantial erosion during subsequent rains, damaging water
                              quality. As a result, catastrophic wildfires compromise the forests’ ability
People                        to sustain timber, outdoor recreation, clean water, and other uses.

                              These increasing numbers of larger, more intense fires also pose hazards
                              to human health, safety, and property. For example, 14 firefighters lost
                              their lives in the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado, which—because of
                              its size and intensity—was able to rapidly surround them. Although
                              investigation reports of this fire did not identify fuel levels as a causal
                              factor in the fatalities, they cited highly flammable and hazardous fuels as
                              a contributing factor. This fire did not originate in a frequent-fire
                              ponderosa stand, but in a stand of a different species, indicating that
                              catastrophic wildfire hazards are not limited to stands dominated by
                              ponderosa.

                              The hazards to human health, life, and property are especially acute along
                              the national forests’ boundaries, where population has grown rapidly in
                              recent years—an area termed the “wildland/urban interface.” Because
                              smoke from such fires contains substantial amounts of fine particulate
                              matter and other hazardous pollutants, the fires can pose significant health
                              risks to people living in this interface. Such fires also threaten
                              infrastructure vital to nearby human communities. For example, the 1996
                              Buffalo Creek fire, which burned several thousand acres and threatened
                              private property in the wildland/urban interface southwest of Denver, left
                              forest soils subject to extreme erosion. Subsequent repeated rainstorms
                              washed what ordinarily would have been several years’ worth of sediment
                              into a reservoir that supplies Denver with water. As a result, the Denver
                              Water Board has estimated that it will incur several million dollars in
                              ongoing expenses for dredging the reservoir and treating the water—an
                              amount several times greater than the cost of fighting the fire.


Catastrophic Fires Are        The growing number of large wildfires and acres burned—coupled with
Increasingly Costly           the increasing complexity of suppression in the wildland/urban
                              interface—has greatly increased the Forest Service’s costs of fighting fires,
                              as shown in figure 2.6.




                              Page 32                                     GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                           Chapter 2
                                           Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                                           and Communities




Figure 2.6: Forest Service’s Expenditures for Wildfire Suppression, Fiscal Years 1986-94

Dollars in millions
350



300



250



200



150



100
      1986      1987        1988        1989        1990            1991          1992           1993          1994
                                                 Fiscal year

                                           Note: The expenditures for each year represent the 10-year rolling average in constant 1994
                                           dollars. Since 1990, 95 percent of these expenditures have been in the interior West.

                                           Source: GAO’s presentation of the Forest Service’s latest available data.




                                           As figure 2.6 indicates, from fiscal year 1986 through fiscal year 1994, the
                                           10-year rolling average of annual costs for fighting fires grew from
                                           $134 million to $335 million in constant 1994 dollars, a 150-percent
                                           increase. Since 1990, 95 percent of these costs were incurred in the
                                           interior West.

                                           Moreover, as shown in figure 2.7, the costs associated with preparedness,
                                           including the costs of keeping equipment and personnel ready to fight
                                           fires, have also been increasing.




                                           Page 33                                          GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                                           Chapter 2
                                           Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                                           and Communities




Figure 2.7: Forest Service’s Expenditures for Wildfire Preparedness, Fiscal Years 1992-97
Dollars in millions
340

320

300

280

260

240

220

200

180
      1992              1993               1994                  1995                    1996                   1997
                                                  Fiscal year


                                           Note: For 1994, the last year for which figures by region were available, over 90 percent of these
                                           expenditures were in the interior West.

                                           Source: Forest Service.




                                           As figure 2.7 indicates, for the 6 fiscal years from 1992 through 1997, fire
                                           preparedness costs increased by 72 percent, from $189 million to
                                           $326 million.8 However, even though expenditures for both suppression
                                           and preparedness have increased in recent years, the agency’s fiscal year
                                           2000 budget proposal calls for maintaining the current funding levels for
                                           both. Given the growing threats of catastrophic wildfire, the agency’s
                                           budget proposal notes that maintaining the current funding level for



                                           8
                                            Federal Lands: Information About Land Management Agencies’ Wildfire Preparedness Activities
                                           (GAO/RCED-98-48R, Dec. 18, 1997) and Federal Lands: Wildfire Preparedness and Suppression
                                           Expenditures for Fiscal Years 1993 Through 1997 (GAO/T-RCED-98-247, Aug. 4, 1998).



                                           Page 34                                          GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                          Chapter 2
                          Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources
                          and Communities




                          preparedness will result in increased risks of injury and loss of life to both
                          the public and firefighters.9


Time Is Running Out for   Many experts believe that efforts to resolve the growing threats of
Addressing the            catastrophic wildfires are in a race against time. According to a 1993
Catastrophic Wildfire     assessment of forest health in the interior West published in 1994, only a
                          “brief window of opportunity” of perhaps 15 to 30 years exists for effective
Problem                   management intervention before damage from uncontrollable wildfires
                          becomes widespread.10 More than 5 of those years have already passed,
                          leaving only about 10 to 25 years remaining. While some future
                          catastrophic wildfires may be inevitable and the amount of time remaining
                          to address this problem is uncertain, experts agree that the solution, like
                          the causes, will be largely the result of human choice and public policy. As
                          the Forest Service noted, citing the 1994 National Commission on Wildfire
                          Disasters,

                          “Uncontrollable wildfire should be seen as a failure of land management and public policy,
                          not as an unpredictable act of nature. The size, intensity, destructiveness and cost of . . .
                          wildfires . . . is no accident. It is an outcome of our attitudes and priorities. . . . The fire
                          situation will become worse rather than better unless there are changes in land
                          management priority at all levels.”




                          9
                           FY 2000 Budget Justification for the Committee on Appropriations, USDA, Forest Service (Feb. 1999).
                          10
                           Assessing Forest Ecosystem Health in the Inland West, Forest Policy Center (Washington, D.C.:
                          1994).



                          Page 35                                          GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 3

Recent Agency Actions to Address
Catastrophic Wildfires Are Important but
May Be Too Little, Too Late
                       In the last decade, the Forest Service has undertaken several actions to
                       better understand and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires on
                       national forests in the interior West. The Congress has been increasingly
                       supportive of these efforts. Nonetheless, the agency may not be able to
                       achieve its announced goal of adequately resolving the problem by the end
                       of fiscal year 2015. Our analysis of the agency’s plans and data indicates
                       that as many as 10 million acres may remain at high risk at that time
                       because the agency will need to divide its planned efforts and resources
                       between reducing accumulated fuels on high-risk areas in the interior
                       West and maintaining current low-risk conditions on other national
                       forestlands.


                       In recent years, the Forest Service has taken steps to address the
The Agency Has         increasing threat of catastrophic wildfires on national forests. For
Recently Taken         instance, in 1990, the agency, along with other federal and state agencies,
Important Steps to     initiated a forest health monitoring program to better identify tree stand
                       conditions, including outbreaks of insects and diseases and dead trees. In
Address Catastrophic   1995, it announced its intention to refocus its fire management program on
Wildfires              reducing accumulated fuels. Specifically, in a 1995 report, the agency
                       recommended increasing the number of acres on which accumulated fuels
                       are reduced annually from about 570,000 to about 3 million by fiscal year
                       2005.11 In 1997, the Chief of the Forest Service said it was the agency’s
                       intention to implement this recommendation, and the agency plans to
                       continue reducing fuels on 3 million acres per year through fiscal year
                       2015. By that time, the agency believes that it will have adequately reduced
                       the current high risks to national forestlands of uncontrollable, highly
                       destructive wildfires.

                       To implement its increased emphasis on reducing accumulated fuels, the
                       Forest Service restructured and redefined its fiscal year 1998 budget for
                       wildland fire management to better ensure that funds are available for
                       these activities.12 In fiscal year 1998, it announced that the funds
                       appropriated for reducing fuels would be allocated to (1) protect high-risk
                       wildland/urban interfaces, with special emphasis on areas subject to
                       frequent fires; (2) reduce accumulated fuels within and adjacent to
                       wilderness areas; and (3) lower the expected long-term costs of
                       suppressing wildfires by restoring and maintaining fire-adapted

                       11
                          Course to the Future: Positioning Fire and Aviation Management, USDA, Forest Service (Washington,
                       D.C.: 1995).
                       12
                        FY 1998 Budget Explanatory Notes for the Committee on Appropriations, USDA, Forest Service
                       (Feb. 1997).



                       Page 36                                         GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                   Chapter 3
                   Recent Agency Actions to Address
                   Catastrophic Wildfires Are Important but
                   May Be Too Little, Too Late




                   ecosystems.13 In addition, the Forest Service has identified reducing
                   accumulated fuels on the national forests as a key measure of its
                   performance in accomplishing its high-priority, long-term strategic goal of
                   restoring and protecting forested ecosystems.14

                   In the past 5 years, the Forest Service—either alone or with the
                   Department of the Interior and other federal agencies—has issued several
                   reports (1) addressing the health of forests in the interior West as well as
                   in other regions of the country, including the health effects of fire
                   suppression and (2) proposing management approaches to more
                   efficiently and effectively reduce accumulated fuels.15 The agency has also
                   (1) revised its wildland fire management policy to more clearly spell out its
                   responsibilities and reimbursable costs so that nonfederal parties can
                   understand the consequences of not working with the agency to reduce
                   the risk of wildfire on their adjacent lands and (2) proposed a number of
                   demonstration projects in collaboration with willing nonfederal partners
                   to demonstrate the role of mechanical methods (including timber
                   harvesting) of removing materials to reduce accumulated fuels.


                   The Congress has supported the Forest Service’s efforts to reduce
The Congress Has   accumulated fuels by, among other things, increasing the funding for this
Increasingly       activity. In addition, in acting on the agency’s fiscal year 1998 budget, the
Supported the      House and Senate appropriations committees approved the Forest
                   Service’s budget restructuring to better ensure that funds are available for
Agency’s Efforts   reducing accumulated fuels. The committees also earmarked $8 million in
                   fiscal year 1998 for the agency and the Department of the Interior to begin
                   a multiyear program, called the Joint Fire Science Program, to gather
                   consistent information on accumulated fuels and ways to reduce them. In
                   January 1998, the agencies issued a plan for conducting this program.16
                   This plan called for the Forest Service and Interior to conduct and sponsor


                   13
                    FY 1999 Budget Explanatory Notes for the Committee on Appropriations, USDA, Forest Service
                   (Feb. 1998).
                   14
                    USDA Strategic Plan 1997-2002: A Healthy and Productive Nation in Harmony With the Land, Forest
                   Service Strategic Plan, USDA, Office of the Secretary (Sept. 30, 1997) and FY 1999 USDA Forest
                   Service Annual GPRA Performance Plan, USDA, Forest Service (Feb. 4, 1998).
                   15
                    Healthy Forests for America’s Future: A Strategic Plan, USDA, Forest Service (Washington, D.C.:
                   1993); Fire Related Considerations and Strategies in Support of Ecosystem Management, USDA, Forest
                   Service (Washington, D.C.: 1993); Western Forest Health Initiative, USDA, Forest Service (Washington,
                   D.C.: 1994); Fire Economics Assessment Report, USDA, Forest Service (Washington, D.C.: 1995); and
                   Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review, Department of the Interior and USDA,
                   Forest Service (Washington, D.C.: 1995 and 1996).
                   16
                      Joint Fire Science Plan, Department of the Interior and USDA, Forest Service (Washington, D.C.:
                   1998).


                   Page 37                                           GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                       Chapter 3
                       Recent Agency Actions to Address
                       Catastrophic Wildfires Are Important but
                       May Be Too Little, Too Late




                       research and analysis projects aimed at better understanding (1) the
                       location and extent of problems with accumulated fuels, (2) the effects on
                       other resources of different approaches to reducing these fuels, (3) the
                       relative cost-effectiveness of these different approaches, and (4) the
                       importance of compatible interagency approaches to monitoring and
                       reporting efforts to reduce fuels. Recently, the initial projects under this
                       multiyear program were authorized and begun. Additionally, the Congress,
                       in its fiscal year 1999 appropriation to the Forest Service, approved the
                       agency’s request to conduct “stewardship contracting demonstration
                       projects” in collaboration with willing nonfederal partners. These projects
                       are intended to demonstrate the role of mechanical methods (including
                       timber harvesting) of removing materials to reduce accumulated fuels. The
                       Congress also authorized the Forest Service, in implementing these
                       demonstration projects, to experiment with alternative contracting
                       procedures.


                       Although the Forest Service, with the active support of the Congress, is
Actions Planned to     taking steps to address the growing risks of catastrophic wildfires on the
Date May Not Be        national forests, it may not be able to adequately resolve the problem by
Sufficient or Timely   the end of fiscal year 2015. In particular, the agency’s current plans may
                       significantly underestimate the number of acres on which fuels must be
Enough to Achieve      reduced annually to adequately reduce fire hazards. Our analysis of the
Agency Goals           agency’s initial plans and data indicates that as many as about 10 million
                       acres in the interior West may still have excessive fuel levels and still be at
                       high risk of uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfire at the end of fiscal year
                       2015.

                       This shortfall may occur largely because the Forest Service has not linked
                       its criteria for allocating the funds appropriated to reduce accumulated
                       fuels to its actual allocation of these funds. The current and planned
                       allocations largely emphasize maintaining satisfactory conditions on lands
                       outside the frequent-fire forests of the interior West that currently have
                       low levels of accumulated fuels so that conditions on them do not also
                       become hazardous. To maintain satisfactory conditions on these other
                       forests, the Forest Service will need to continue reducing fuels on them, at
                       a rate of about 1 million acres per year. Thus, the agency’s plans to reduce
                       fuels nationally on 3 million acres per year will provide for only about
                       2 million acres on national forests in the interior West. This level of
                       accomplishment will likely fall short of the levels needed to meet the
                       agency’s goals for the interior West’s frequent-fire forests. Moreover,
                       despite budget allocation criteria emphasizing the restoration of high-risk



                       Page 38                                    GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 3
Recent Agency Actions to Address
Catastrophic Wildfires Are Important but
May Be Too Little, Too Late




interface areas within the interior West’s frequent fire forest ecosystems,
such restoration activities will be limited by incomplete information. As
the agency noted in February 1999, it has not yet mapped these interface
areas with the precision needed to identify and design individual
high-priority fuel reduction projects.

Additionally, despite earlier plans to steadily increase its fuel reduction
efforts, the agency is now intending to scale back the work, according to
its fiscal year 2000 budget proposal. Initially, it planned to increase its
efforts nationwide from about 1.5 million acres in fiscal year 1999 to
1.8 million acres in fiscal year 2000, building toward 3 million acres per
year by fiscal year 2005. However, in its recently proposed fiscal year 2000
budget, it called for reducing fuels on only 1.3 million acres, or on fewer
acres than planned for the current fiscal year.17

However, it should be noted that the Forest Service could very likely
substantially reduce fire hazards without reducing fuels on all 39 million
acres currently at high risk of catastrophic fire. For example, it might be
able to construct fuelbreaks—i.e., areas where excessive fuels have been
removed in strategic locations to isolate areas that still have excessive
fuels—and thus limit the spread of large fires. But the Forest Service has
not yet developed a general strategy for selectively reducing fuels, nor for
implementing any alternative strategic approach that would allow it to
systematically assign priorities to areas and thus safely decide not to
reduce fuels on some lower-priority areas. Until it develops such a
strategy, it has no basis for eliminating any current high-risk areas from its
fuel reduction efforts, nor can it adequately evaluate the relative
effectiveness or efficiency of its current efforts.

The Forest Service stated in 1996 that its forest planning efforts did not
adequately consider historical fire disturbance cycles. The purpose of the
Joint Fire Science Program is to obtain information critical to planning
and undertaking effective agency actions. However, an agency official
involved in implementing the program said 10 years will be needed to
complete it and that, as it is completed, national forests will use its
findings to amend or revise current individual forest plans. Efforts to
revise forest plans can take several years.

Progress to date in gathering data under the program has proved difficult.
In September 1998, the agency said that under the Joint Fire Science Plan,

17
 FY 2000 Budget Justification for the Committee on Appropriations, USDA, Forest Service
(Feb. 1999).



Page 39                                         GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 3
Recent Agency Actions to Address
Catastrophic Wildfires Are Important but
May Be Too Little, Too Late




it would complete an initial mapping of the locations and levels of existing
hazardous conditions on national forests before the end of the year.
However, in February 1999, the agency said that the results of initial
efforts to map these conditions still needed additional review and that,
even when the initial mapping was completed, the data would not yet be
precise enough to provide a basis for ranking and designing site-specific
fuel reduction projects. Although the Forest Service is experimenting with
using this type of mapping information in conjunction with other, more
local analyses to rank and design individual fuel reduction projects in the
Idaho Panhandle area, it has not yet developed a consistent, agencywide
mapping approach.

The recently approved stewardship contracting demonstration
projects—for testing new partnership and contracting procedures for
reducing fuels—are in the initial selection and analysis stage. Critical to
the usefulness of these demonstration projects will be the Forest Service’s
development, at their outset, of a common framework for systematically
evaluating their effectiveness. Such a framework is necessary for the
agency to gather and summarize consistent information on the projects’
implementation, results, and lessons learned so that the lessons can be
applied more generally to the agency’s future fuel reduction efforts.
However, no common evaluation framework has been developed yet, even
though many of the demonstration projects are soon to be implemented.




Page 40                                    GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 4

The Agency Lacks a Cohesive Strategy for
Addressing Several Barriers to Effective
Action
                             Without adequate data, the Forest Service has not been able to develop a
                             cohesive strategy for addressing numerous policy, programmatic, and
                             budgetary factors that present significant barriers to the accomplishment
                             of its fuel reduction goals. These factors include (1) difficulties in
                             reconciling needed actions with other legislatively mandated stewardship
                             objectives to protect resources, (2) program incentives that tend to focus
                             on areas of that may not present the greatest wildfire hazards,
                             (3) statutorily defined contracting mechanisms that do not facilitate the
                             removal of many hazardous fuels, and (4) costs for reducing fuels on
                             high-risk areas that may be as high as $12 billion between now and the end
                             of fiscal year 2015. The agency has not systematically identified the steps
                             or activities to be undertaken in order overcome these barriers, nor has it
                             developed a schedule for accomplishing them.


                             Methods to reduce fuels can be difficult to reconcile with agencies’ other
Several Barriers Exist       responsibilities. In dense tree stands, fires are difficult to control and may
to Effective Agency          escape. In addition, controlled burning on a scale consistent with that of
Action                       historically frequent fires is difficult to use without violating air quality
                             standards established under the Clean Air Act. However, mechanically
                             removing fuels (through commercial timber harvesting, among other
                             means), can also adversely affect wildlife habitat and water quality in
                             many areas and, in any event, areas with commercially valuable timber are
                             often not those where the greatest wildfire hazards exists. In addition, the
                             agency’s fuel reduction program rewards managers for the number of
                             acres on which they reduce fuels, without taking into account the relative
                             hazards on those acres; it does not reward managers for reducing fuels on
                             the most hazardous acres. Finally, the agency’s statutorily defined
                             contracting mechanisms were primarily designed for removing high-value
                             timber, not excess accumulated fuels that are generally low in value and
                             can be costly to remove. As a result, the cost to the Forest Service for
                             reducing fuels on the 39 million acres at high risk may be about $12 billion
                             between now and the end of fiscal year 2015, or an average of about
                             $725 million annually, and these costly activities will have to be repeated
                             in the future.


Fuel Reduction Activities    Activities for reducing accumulated fuels can sometimes be difficult to
Are Sometimes Difficult to   reconcile with other legislatively mandated stewardship objectives,
Reconcile With Other         including meeting clean water quality standards and protecting threatened
                             and endangered species. According to an agency official, in the past, the
Stewardship Objectives       Forest Service sometimes used chemicals (herbicides) to kill



                             Page 41                               GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 4
The Agency Lacks a Cohesive Strategy for
Addressing Several Barriers to Effective
Action




undergrowth, which could then be burned. Combining these two methods
was often less costly than mechanically removing the undergrowth. The
agency has, however, largely stopped using herbicides because of
concerns about their adverse effects on water quality and human health.
Additionally, because large ponderosa pine trees were selectively
harvested and fire was suppressed in the Deschutes National Forest in
Oregon, ponderosa stands have largely been replaced by abnormally dense
stands of Douglas fir. However, many of the Douglas fir stands cannot be
removed because they now provide habitat for the threatened northern
spotted owl, whose naturally occurring habitat on the western side of the
Cascade mountain range has been significantly reduced by timber
harvesting.

Many agency and outside experts believe that, ultimately, avoiding
catastrophic wildfires and restoring forest health in the interior West will
require reintroducing fire through burning under controlled conditions to
reduce fuels. However, the use of controlled fire in the interior West has
two limitations. First, winter snows limit the time available for burning,
and dry summer weather creates a high risk that, given massive levels of
accumulated fuels, controlled fires will escape and become
uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfires. Second, several officials and
experts we spoke with believe that emissions from controlled fires on the
scale that is needed to adequately reduce fuels would violate federal air
quality standards under the Clean Air Act. Hence, in their view, the act
would not permit the desired level of burning either immediately or
possibly even in the long term. The Forest Service and the Environmental
Protection Agency, which administers the Clean Air Act, are currently
conducting a 3-year experiment to better determine the impact of
emissions from controlled fires.

For these reasons, many experts agree that fuels must be reduced in most
areas of the interior West, at least initially, by mechanical means, including
commercial timber harvesting, in conjunction with controlled burning. The
Forest Service currently uses its timber sales management program to
reduce accumulated fuels.18 However, the use of timber harvesting to
reduce fuels has been limited by concerns about its adverse effects on
other stewardship objectives. Specifically, in fiscal year 1997, timber
harvesting was used to reduce fuels on only about 95,000 acres, or fewer
than 5 percent of the acres on which fuels will need to be reduced
annually to achieve the agency’s long-term goal. Forest Service officials

18
 FY 1999 Budget Explanatory Notes for the Committee on Appropriations, USDA, Forest Service
(Feb. 1998).



Page 42                                       GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                             Chapter 4
                             The Agency Lacks a Cohesive Strategy for
                             Addressing Several Barriers to Effective
                             Action




                             told us that it was not likely that commercial timber harvesting could be
                             increased enough to adequately reduce fuels on the vast acreage needing
                             such reductions.


Incentives in the Timber     Moreover, mechanical removals under both the timber sales management
and Fuel Reduction           program and the fuel reduction program funded by appropriations
Programs Tend to Focus       currently involve incentives that tend to focus efforts on areas that may
                             not present the greatest fire hazards. For example, under its fuel reduction
Efforts on Areas of Lesser   program, the Forest Service’s lone performance indicator measures the
Hazard                       number of acres treated. Agency field staff told us that funding for forests
                             often depends on their ability to contribute to the agency’s acreage targets.
                             As a result, forest staff often focus on areas where the costs of reducing
                             fuels are low so that they can reduce fuels on more acres, rather than on
                             those areas with the highest fire hazards, including especially the
                             wildland/urban interfaces. These high-hazard areas often have significantly
                             higher per-acre costs because of limitations on the use of less expensive
                             controlled fires as a tool to reduce the accumulated fuels. Although the
                             Forest Service is considering making changes to its current performance
                             indicator, it has not yet done so.

                             Timber harvesting may make useful contributions to reducing
                             accumulated fuels in many circumstances. However, reducing fuels with
                             the funds allocated for timber sales management may also provide an
                             incentive for forests to focus on less critical areas. The Forest Service
                             stresses that its timber sales management program is increasingly being
                             used for efforts to improve forest health, including efforts to prevent
                             catastrophic fires.19 The agency relies on timber production to fund many
                             of its programs and activities, and all three of its budget allocation criteria
                             for timber activities relate solely to the volume of timber produced or
                             offered. As a result, as forest officials told us, they tend to (1) focus on
                             areas with high-value commercial timber rather than on areas with high
                             fire hazards or (2) include more large, commercially valuable trees in a
                             timber sale than are necessary to reduce the accumulated fuels. Similarly,
                             an interagency team that reviewed the implementation of the Emergency
                             Salvage Timber Sale Program observed that some Forest Service
                             personnel focused more on harvesting timber than on protecting forested
                             ecosystems.20 This tendency of some agency personnel was further

                             19
                               National Summary: Forest Management Program Report for Fiscal Year 1997, USDA, Forest Service,
                             FS-627 (July 1998).
                             20
                              Interagency Salvage Program Review, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and
                             Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service (Silver Spring, Md., Oct. 8, 1996).



                             Page 43                                           GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                         Chapter 4
                         The Agency Lacks a Cohesive Strategy for
                         Addressing Several Barriers to Effective
                         Action




                         documented in a 1999 report by the Department of Agriculture’s Office of
                         Inspector General.21


Statutorily Defined      Most of the trees that need to be removed to reduce accumulated fuels are
Contracting Mechanisms   small in diameter and have little or no commercial value. For example, to
Do Not Facilitate the    return experimental forest plots near Flagstaff, Arizona, to historical
                         conditions, 37 tons per acre of nonmarketable trees and vegetation had to
Removal of Many          be disposed of by being placed in a pit and burned. However, the agency’s
Hazardous Fuels          largely statutorily defined contracting procedures were not designed to
                         (1) facilitate the systematic removal of large volumes of low-value material
                         over a number of years, (2) readily combine funds for conducting timber
                         sales with funds for reducing accumulated fuels, or (3) allow contractors
                         to retain this low-value material to partially offset the costs of its removal.

                         More specifically, the agency’s two principal contracting procedures for
                         removing materials from national forests are (1) competitively bid timber
                         sale contracts under which the party removing the material purchases it at
                         fair market value and expects to sell it for a profit and (2) service
                         contracts, funded by appropriations, which do not involve selling the
                         material, but merely paying a contractor for removing it. The National
                         Forest Management Act of 1976 generally does not allow materials worth
                         more than $10,000 to be removed from national forests under service
                         contracts; instead, such materials must generally be removed under
                         competitively bid timber sale contracts.22 However, low-value materials
                         are unattractive to timber purchasers. As a result, the value of this
                         contracting procedure for reducing low-value fuels is quite limited.

                         While the materials to be removed may not be valuable enough for
                         contractors to make a profit by purchasing them, the materials often have
                         some lesser value. If purchasers could keep this material, they could apply
                         its lesser value to offset at least part of their costs for removing it. They
                         could then charge the Forest Service less for removal, saving the
                         government money while reducing fuels on more acres for any given level
                         of appropriated funding. However, the agency generally does not have the
                         authority to trade goods (in the form of low-value forest materials) for a
                         service (such as removing them).23 Because of these restrictions, in 1998,

                         21
                          Forest Service Timber Sale Environmental Analysis Requirements, Evaluation Report No.
                         08801-10-At, USDA, Office of Inspector General (Washington, D.C.: Jan. 1999).
                         22
                           16 U.S.C. 472a.
                         23
                          See Paul C. Ringgold, Land Stewardship Contracting in the National Forests: A Community Guide to
                         Existing Authorities, Pinchot Institute for Conservation (Washington, D.C.: 1998).



                         Page 44                                        GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                          Chapter 4
                          The Agency Lacks a Cohesive Strategy for
                          Addressing Several Barriers to Effective
                          Action




                          Agriculture’s Office of General Counsel determined that only 6 of 23
                          projects proposed by the Forest Service to demonstrate, among other
                          things, the role of timber harvesting in reducing accumulated fuels, could
                          proceed under the agency’s existing statutory authority. The remaining
                          projects would, among other things, have involved removing material of
                          greater total value than is allowed under service contracts or letting
                          contractors keep some material in exchange for removing it. In the Fiscal
                          Year 1999 Omnibus Consolidated and Emergency Supplemental
                          Appropriations Act, the Congress authorized the Forest Service, through
                          fiscal year 2002, to enter into 28 individual demonstration project
                          contracts under which (1) the value of the material removed may be used
                          by the contractor to offset the costs of removal, and (2) there is no
                          limitation on the value of the material to be removed. However, the more
                          general authority temporarily granted to the agency in the early 1990s to
                          enter into “land stewardship contracts”—under which contractors were
                          allowed to retain material they removed in exchange for achieving desired
                          conditions on the national forests—has not been renewed.24


Costs for Removing        Because the materials removed through fuel reduction efforts often have
Hazardous Fuels Will Be   low or no value, the revenue they generate will not cover the costs of their
Very High                 removal. Consequently, agency officials and outside analysts agree that
                          reducing accumulated fuels in the interior West is likely to require
                          hundreds of millions of dollars a year in appropriated funds. Our
                          preliminary analysis of the Forest Service’s fuel reduction costs—which,
                          according to the agency’s data average about $320 per acre for the
                          combination of burning and mechanical removal that is necessary in the
                          interior West—indicates that as much as $12 billion, or about $725 million
                          a year, may be needed to treat the 39 million acres at high risk of
                          uncontrollable wildfire by the end of fiscal year 2015. These costs might be
                          less if the agency reduced current hazards on the 39 million acres
                          selectively, in accordance with a systematic strategy and set of priorities.

                          For fiscal year 1999, the agency requested and received $65 million to
                          reduce accumulated fuels—or less than one-tenth of the annual level that
                          may be needed to accomplish its goal. At that time, it projected that it
                          would increase its request to $102 million for fiscal year 2000, in keeping
                          with its announced intention to increase its fuel reduction efforts through
                          fiscal year 2015. However, in its recently released fiscal year 2000 budget

                          24
                           See Forest Service Timber Sale Practices and Procedures: Analysis of Alternative Systems,
                          Congressional Research Service, 95-1077 ENR (Washington, D.C.: 1995) and M. Mitsos, Improving
                          Administrative Flexibility and Efficiency in the National Forest Timber Sale Program: Scoping Session
                          Summary, Pinchot Institute (Washington, D.C.: 1996).



                          Page 45                                          GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                        Chapter 4
                        The Agency Lacks a Cohesive Strategy for
                        Addressing Several Barriers to Effective
                        Action




                        request, the agency instead asked for the same $65 million it received for
                        fiscal year 1999. The agency stated that, because fuels have already been
                        reduced on the least costly areas, this funding level will provide for even
                        fewer acres than it did in the previous year.

                        Moreover, our analysis of the costs to reduce fuels on national forest acres
                        identified as being at high risk examined only the “first-time” costs of
                        reducing fuels on them. Fuels will have to be reduced periodically in order
                        to maintain forest health. For example, in 1998, the Wenatchee National
                        Forest in Washington stated that it would have to begin reducing fuels on
                        areas treated only 10 to 15 years ago because undergrowth had
                        accumulated in the interim, posing new fire hazards. Forest Service
                        officials we spoke with agreed with a 1997 observation by the Secretary of
                        the Interior that substantial efforts to reduce fuels will have to be repeated
                        three to five times or more on these lands over many decades, although
                        the later repetitions may be less costly.


                        We have previously noted that the Forest Service lacks accountability in
The Agency Lacks a      implementing its ecosystem management approach to ensure sustainable
Cohesive Strategy for   multiple uses of the national forests. Specifically, we noted that (1) its
Addressing Barriers     goals and objectives under this approach are not linked to performance
                        measures to ensure their accomplishment and (2) it lacks a goal or
                        schedule for achieving accountability for its performance.25 This
                        observation applies equally to the agency’s efforts to address the threat
                        posed by catastrophic wildfires to ensuring sustainable multiple uses. For
                        instance, as noted in this report, the incentive implicit in its current
                        performance measure for fuel reduction tends not to focus activities on
                        the most hazardous areas. Thus, the agency has no meaningful
                        performance measure and goal related to reducing catastrophic wildfire
                        hazards. Such a meaningful performance measure and goal are critical if
                        the agency is to develop a cohesive strategy for reducing accumulated
                        fuels and be held accountable for accomplishing this strategy.

                        According to Forest Service officials, the agency has not established such
                        a meaningful performance measure and goal for reducing fuels because it
                        lacks sufficient data on the location of acres in national forests at high risk
                        of catastrophic fire, as well as on the cost-effectiveness and effects on
                        other resources of methods for reducing them. Our observations at the
                        forests we visited confirmed this lack of data. Forest officials could only

                        25
                         Forest Service: Lack of Financial and Performance Accountability Has Resulted in Inefficiency and
                        Waste (GAO/T-RCED/AIMD-98-135, Mar. 26, 1998).



                        Page 46                                         GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 4
The Agency Lacks a Cohesive Strategy for
Addressing Several Barriers to Effective
Action




estimate or tell us in general terms how many acres they believed were at
such risk, but could not identify particular high-risk locations or
high-priority areas with any significant precision. Agency officials believe
that having such data, which the Joint Fire Science Program is intended to
identify, will better enable them both to develop a meaningful
performance goal and measure and to better reconcile different fuel
reduction approaches with other stewardship objectives. Similarly, they
believe that data from the stewardship contracting demonstration projects
will help them identify changes in statutorily defined contracting
procedures that would better facilitate the accomplishment of fuel
reduction goals.

However, the agency has not systematically identified a cohesive set of
activities or steps that it will undertake to obtain needed data, better
reconcile objectives, or identify desirable changes in contracting
procedures. Nor has it outlined a schedule for accomplishing these tasks.




Page 47                                    GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Chapter 5

Conclusions and Recommendation


              We believe that the threats and costs associated with increasingly
Conclusions   uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfires, together with the urgent need for
              action to avoid them, make them the most serious immediate problem
              related to the health of national forests in the interior West. We also
              believe that the activities planned by the Forest Service may not be
              sufficient and may not be completed during the estimated 10- to 25-year
              “window of opportunity” remaining for effective action before damage
              from uncontrollable wildfires becomes widespread. The tinderbox that is
              now the interior West likely cannot wait that long for a cohesive strategy
              to be implemented. Simply allowing nature to take its inevitable course
              may cost more—not only for fire suppression, but also in human lives and
              damage to natural resources, human health, property, and
              infrastructure—than would undertaking strategic actions now.

              The increasing number of uncontrollable and often catastrophic wildfires
              in the interior West, as well as the significant costs to reduce growing
              hazards to natural resources and human health, safety, property, and
              infrastructure, present difficult policy decisions for the Forest Service and
              the Congress: Does the agency request, and does the Congress
              appropriate, the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that may be
              required to fund an aggressive fuel reduction program? If enough is not
              appropriated, what priorities should be established? How can the need for
              reintroducing fire into frequent-fire forests and mechanical removals best
              be reconciled with meeting air quality standards and other stewardship
              objectives? What incentives and changes in statutorily defined contracting
              procedures are needed to facilitate the mechanical removal of low-value
              materials?

              Such decisions should be based on a sound strategy that, in turn, depends
              in large part on data being gathered under the Forest Service and Interior’s
              Joint Fire Science Program and the Forest Service’s stewardship
              contracting demonstration projects. With these data, the agency will be
              able to establish more meaningful performance measures, priorities, and
              goals for reducing fuels. It will also be better able to (1) reconcile different
              fuel reduction approaches with its other stewardship objectives,
              (2) identify changes in incentives and statutorily defined contracting
              procedures that will better facilitate the accomplishment of fuel reduction
              goals, and (3) determine the associated costs of different options for doing
              so. All of these elements will be essential in the more cohesive agency
              strategy needed to address the problem of catastrophic wildfires now
              threatening the sustainability of multiple national forest uses and the
              security of human life, health, property, and infrastructure in communities



              Page 48                                GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                    Chapter 5
                    Conclusions and Recommendation




                    near those forests. However, because of concerns about the agency’s
                    accountability, we believe that the credibility of its efforts to devise such a
                    strategy hinge upon the establishment of a clearly understood schedule for
                    expeditiously developing and implementing this strategy.


                    We recommend that the Secretary of Agriculture direct the Chief of the
Recommendation to   Forest Service to develop, and formally communicate to the Congress, a
the Secretary of    cohesive strategy for reducing and maintaining accumulated fuels on
Agriculture         national forests of the interior West at acceptable levels. We further
                    recommend that this strategy include (1) specific steps for (a) acquiring
                    the data needed to establish meaningful performance measures and goals
                    for reducing fuels, (b) identifying ways of better reconciling different fuel
                    reduction approaches with other stewardship objectives, and (c)
                    identifying changes in incentives and statutorily defined contracting
                    procedures that would better facilitate the accomplishment of fuel
                    reduction goals; (2) a schedule indicating dates for completing each of
                    these steps; and (3) estimates of the potential and likely overall and annual
                    costs of accomplishing this strategy based on different options identified
                    in the strategy as being available for doing so.




                    Page 49                               GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Appendix I

Comments From the Forest Service




              Page 50      GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Appendix I
Comments From the Forest Service




Page 51                            GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                     Appendix I
                     Comments From the Forest Service




See GAO comment 1.




                     Page 52                            GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                     Appendix I
                     Comments From the Forest Service




See GAO comment 2.




See GAO comment 3.




                     Page 53                            GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                     Appendix I
                     Comments From the Forest Service




See GAO comment 4.




See GAO comment 5.




See GAO comment 6.




See GAO comment 3.




See GAO comment 7.



See GAO comment 8.




                     Page 54                            GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                      Appendix I
                      Comments From the Forest Service




See GAO comment 9.



Now on p. 27.


Now on pp. 27-28.
See GAO comment 10.




Now on p. 32.
See GAO comment 11.




Now on p. 36.


Now on p. 38.

Now on p. 39.




                      Page 55                            GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
                 Appendix I
                 Comments From the Forest Service




                 The following are GAO’s comments on the Forest Service’s letter dated
                 March 22, 1999.


                 1. Our report notes that there is a lack of consensus on what constitutes
GAO’s Comments   forest health. We have added language in our report to incorporate the
                 agency’s observation that greater community awareness and acceptance of
                 needed actions are important elements in implementing a successful fuel
                 reduction strategy. Moreover, we believe that the agency, through
                 improving the cohesiveness of its strategy, may provide communities and
                 those concerned about forest health with a clearer basis for both reaching
                 consensus on and accepting needed actions.

                 2. We do not presume that there is a broad scientific consensus
                 surrounding appropriate methods or techniques for dealing with fuel
                 build-up or agreement on the size of the areas where, and the time frames
                 when, such methods or techniques should be applied. Our report
                 recognizes that the agency is currently pursuing better answers to these
                 questions through the Joint Fire Science Program and other efforts, and
                 we have added clarifying language in our report to incorporate the
                 agency’s observation.

                 3. We agree that the other forest management activities, identified by the
                 Forest Service as contributing to overall forest health and as having an
                 impact on acres at risk of wildfire, should not overlooked and can be
                 important elements in the agency’s more cohesive strategy. For instance,
                 our report notes important interrelationships that the agency must
                 consider when balancing fuel reduction goals with other stewardship
                 objectives, such as preserving air and water quality.

                 4. We agree that expanding the Forest Service’s fuel reduction program
                 over the next few decades could significantly reduce the risk of
                 high-intensity fire and allow for the successful suppression of wildland fire
                 in areas where fuels have been reduced. However, as noted in our report,
                 the agency’s planned expansion of this program is not on schedule, and its
                 fiscal year 2000 budget request, compared with its fiscal year 1999
                 appropriation, will provide for reducing fuel on fewer acres, rather than on
                 more, as originally planned. We believe this change demonstrates the need
                 for the agency to better identify estimates of potential and likely costs to
                 accomplish a more cohesive strategy as recommended in our report.




                 Page 56                              GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Appendix I
Comments From the Forest Service




5. We did not evaluate the relationship between specific funding levels for
the Forest Service’s initial responses to wildfires and the resulting
likelihood of acreage lost to catastrophic wildfire. However, our report
notes that the agency’s fiscal year 2000 budget request will only maintain
current funding level for preparedness, not increase the funding for it.
According to the agency, maintaining the current funding level will
increase the risks of injuries and loss of life to the public and firefighters
next year. We believe this statement further supports our recommendation
that the agency needs to better identify estimates of potential and likely
costs to accomplish a more cohesive strategy.

6. Our report notes that fuel reduction is not required on every national
forest acre currently at high risk of catastrophic wildfire and that blocks
where fuels have been reduced, called fire breaks or fuel breaks, may
prevent fires from reaching high intensity or large size. However, we also
note that the Forest Service has not yet developed a general strategy for
constructing such fire breaks, nor for implementing any alternative
strategic approach that would allow it to systematically assign priorities to
areas and thus safely avoid reducing fuels on some of them. Until the
agency develops such a strategy, it has no basis for eliminating any current
high-risk areas from its fuel reduction efforts, nor can it adequately
evaluate the relative effectiveness or efficiency of its current efforts.

7. We agree that some of the acres at high risk will burn in the interior
West, thereby reducing fuels on them and lowering the total number of
acres remaining at high risk. However, as we point out in our report, in
many areas fuels will have to be reduced repeatedly. Moreover, as our
report points out, the concern about catastrophic wildfires is not just how
many acres they burn, but where those acres are located. In particular,
future catastrophic wildfires that (1) burn many acres in the
wildland/urban interface, taking lives and damaging human health,
property, or infrastructure; (2) destroy critical terrestrial or aquatic
habitat; or (3) needlessly destroy timber available for harvest should be
considered as part of the problem rather than as contributions to reducing
it.

8. We agree with the agency that it is important to maintain current
satisfactory conditions in regions other than the frequent-fire forests of the
interior West, including the Forest Service’s Southern Region, so that fire
risks in these areas do not also become hazardous to resources or people,
as many areas in the interior West are now. We also do not question the
level of funding for fuel reduction efforts in these other regions. Our report



Page 57                               GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Appendix I
Comments From the Forest Service




states, instead, that the acres in these other regions on which it plans to
maintain the current lower fuel levels must be taken into account when
determining the adequacy of the agency’s plans to reduce fuels on a total
of 3 million acres nationally each year.

9. We do not disagree that Joint Fire Science Program’s projects are
currently planned to be completed in 3 to 5 years. Instead, our report notes
an agency official’s estimate of how long they may actually take. In our
view, the project’s experience to date with mapping fire risks suggests that
tasks under this program may, in fact, take longer than currently planned.
This task, which was originally scheduled for completion in November
1998, is now, according to the agency’s comments on our draft report, not
projected to be completed until September 2000. Finally, we note that the
plan adopted in 1998 for carrying out the program provides for members
of its governing board to serve for 10 years.

10. We did not assess the extent to which the increase in the acreage
burned in the interior West over the last few years can be partly attributed
to more flexible suppression strategies. Nor do we question whether such
strategies may be an important element in the agency’s overall strategy to
reduce fuels. However, regardless of the reasons for the increases in the
acreage burned, substantially more acres are now burning unintentionally,
with increasing costs and threats to resources and people. The agency has
on several occasions concurred that this is a serious problem. For
instance, as we note in our report, the agency has stated in its fiscal year
2000 budget request that the risks of injuries and loss of life to the public
and firefighters will increase next year. Finally, we agree that these more
flexible suppression strategies are not acreage driven, but hazard based.
However, as we point out in our report, current incentives in the agency’s
main fuel reduction program are acreage driven, not hazard based, and
incentives in its timber program are largely driven by commercial rather
than safety considerations. Our report urges the development of a more
cohesive fuel reduction strategy that addresses ways to better integrate
these incentives around hazard reduction.

11. The Forest Service is correct in pointing out that the level of fuels was
not specifically identified as a cause of the fatalities in the investigative
reports on this fire and that the predominant vegetation type was not, in
this case, long-needle pine. However, according to the investigative
reports we reviewed, this was a very large, intense fire that spread to the
canopy (i.e., crowns of the trees), and highly flammable and hazardous




Page 58                               GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Appendix I
Comments From the Forest Service




fuels were a significant contributor to the fatalities.26 While our report
notes that long-needle pines such as ponderosa are a predominant forest
type at lower elevations in the interior West, the example serves to point
out that catastrophic wildfire hazards on national forests of the interior
West are not limited to this forest type. Our report considers all wildfire
hazards in the region and is not limited to fire hazards associated with any
specific type of tree stand or vegetation. Our purpose in citing this
example was simply to demonstrate that large, intense fires occurring on
the interior Western national forests can be life threatening, irrespective of
all of their causes and sources. We have added the language in the report
to reflect the agency’s comment about the fire and clarify the scope of our
report.




26
   Report of the South Canyon Fire Accident Investigation Team, Bureau of Land Management and
Forest Service (Aug. 17, 1994); and Fire Behavior Associated With the 1994 South Canyon Fire on
Storm King Mountain, Colorado, USDA, Forest Service, Research Paper RMRS-RP-9 (Ogden, Utah:
1998).



Page 59                                         GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Appendix II

Major Contributors to This Report


                        Ryan T. Coles
Resources,              Susan L. Conlon
Community, and          Charles S. Cotton
Economic Division       Elizabeth R. Eisenstadt
                        Lynne L. Goldfarb
                        Brent L. Hutchison
                        Chester M. Joy
                        Hugo W. Wolter, Jr.


                        Doreen Stolzenberg Feldman
Office of the General
Counsel




(141261)                Page 60                      GAO/RCED-99-65 Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
Ordering Information

The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free.
Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the
following address, accompanied by a check or money order
made out to the Superintendent of Documents, when
necessary. VISA and MasterCard credit cards are accepted, also.
Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address
are discounted 25 percent.

Orders by mail:

U.S. General Accounting Office
P.O. Box 37050
Washington, DC 20013

or visit:

Room 1100
700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. NW)
U.S. General Accounting Office
Washington, DC

Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 512-6000
or by using fax number (202) 512-6061, or TDD (202) 512-2537.

Each day, GAO issues a list of newly available reports and
testimony. To receive facsimile copies of the daily list or any
list from the past 30 days, please call (202) 512-6000 using a
touchtone phone. A recorded menu will provide information on
how to obtain these lists.

For information on how to access GAO reports on the INTERNET,
send an e-mail message with "info" in the body to:

info@www.gao.gov

or visit GAO’s World Wide Web Home Page at:

http://www.gao.gov




PRINTED ON    RECYCLED PAPER
United States                       Bulk Rate
General Accounting Office      Postage & Fees Paid
Washington, D.C. 20548-0001           GAO
                                 Permit No. G100
Official Business
Penalty for Private Use $300

Address Correction Requested