Western National Forests: Status of Forest Service's Efforts to Reduce Catastrophic Wildfire Threats

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-06-29.

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

                    United States General Accounting Office

GAO                 Testimony
                    Before the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health,
                    Committee on Resources, House of Representatives

For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                    WESTERN NATIONAL
2:00 p.m. EDT
Tuesday             FORESTS
June 29, 1999

                    Status of Forest Service’s
                    Efforts to Reduce
                    Catastrophic Wildfire
                    Statement of Barry T. Hill, Associate Director,
                    Energy, Resources, and Science Issues,
                    Resources, Community, and Economic
                    Development Division

Madam Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: We are here today
to discuss the status of efforts by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest
Service to develop a cohesive strategy to reduce the threat of catastrophic
wildfires on national forests in the interior West. Our comments are based
primarily on the report and two testimonies that we prepared for this
Subcommittee over the last year1 and the agency’s actions to date in
response to our findings and recommendation.

In summary, the Forest Service has begun to develop a strategy to address
the growing threat that catastrophic wildfires pose to forest resources and
nearby communities. Developing and implementing such a strategy
presents a difficult challenge to the agency because the wildfire issue
transcends the boundaries of both its regions and forests and its
resource-specific programs. Confronted with other issues that transcend
these boundaries—such as protecting the habitat of the threatened
northern spotted owl—the Forest Service has, on occasion, shown that it
can develop and implement a cohesive strategy expeditiously and at a
relatively low cost. At other times, it has begun to develop a strategy but
has either studied and restudied the issue without ever doing so or
developed a strategy but left its implementation to the discretion of its
independent and highly autonomous field offices with mixed results. A key
factor that separates the strategies that are effectively implemented from
those that are not is whether the agency treats the issue as an agencywide
priority. Those issues that are treated as priorities (1) benefit from a sense
of urgency and strong leadership by top-level management in developing
and implementing a strategy, (2) are addressed through a strategy that
provides the agency’s managers with adequate direction and sets
standards for holding them accountable, and (3) are allocated the
resources necessary to implement the strategy. To date, we have not seen
the strong leadership or the marshalling of funds and resources within the
agency that would indicate to us that the Forest Service feels a sense of
urgency and assigns a high priority to reducing the threat of catastrophic

 Western National Forests: Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources and Communities
(GAO/T-RCED-98-273, Sept. 28, 1998); Western National Forests: Nearby Communities Are
Increasingly Threatened by Catastrophic Wildfires (GAO/T-RCED-99-79, Feb. 9, 1999); and Western
National Forests: A Cohesive Strategy Is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
(GAO/RCED-99-65, Apr. 2, 1999).

Page 1                                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-241
                         In April 1999, we reported that many national forests in the interior West,
The Forest Service       as well as nearby communities, are increasingly threatened by large,
Has Agreed to            catastrophic wildfires caused by the excessive accumulation of vegetation
Develop a Cohesive       that forms fuels for such fires. Fuels are accumulating, in large part,
                         because for decades the agency has suppressed fire in forests where
Strategy to Reduce       frequent, low-intensity fires historically removed such accumulations. We
the Threat of            observed that the actions taken by the agency to date to deal with this
                         problem may be too little, too late. Moreover, the Forest Service faces
Catastrophic Wildfires   several barriers, including (1) difficulties in reconciling different fuel
                         reduction methods with other stewardship objectives, such as clean air
                         and clean water; (2) programmatic incentives that tend to focus efforts on
                         areas that may not present the highest fire hazards; (3) statutorily defined
                         contracting procedures that impede efforts to reduce fuels; and (4) the
                         high costs associated with implementing the different fuel reduction
                         methods. We also found that the agency lacks the data required to
                         overcome these barriers and to establish meaningful goals and measures
                         for fuel reduction.

                         The Forest Service agreed with our findings and recommendation that it
                         develop a cohesive strategy for addressing these barriers and reducing
                         fuels and formally communicate the strategy to the Congress, together
                         with estimates of the costs to implement it. According to the Forest
                         Service, it intends to develop a strategy by December 31, 1999.

                         Developing and implementing a strategy to address the growing threat of
Developing a Strategy    catastrophic wildfires in the interior West presents a difficult challenge to
Presents a Difficult     the Forest Service. We estimate that the cost to the agency to reduce fuels
Challenge to the         on the 39 million acres of national forestland in the interior West that are
                         at high risk could be as much as $725 million annually, or more than 10
Forest Service           times the current level of funding for reducing fuels.

                         Such a strategy also transcends the boundaries of both the Forest
                         Service’s field and program structures. For example, the 155 national
                         forests are the agency’s basic planning units, and each forest has
                         considerable autonomy and discretion in interpreting and applying the
                         agency’s policies and directions. However, a strategy to reduce the risk of
                         catastrophic fire in the region will need to transcend the boundaries of
                         individual forests and involve most, if not all, of the 91 national forests
                         located in the interior West.

                         Page 2                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-241
                        Similarly, a strategy to reduce fuels must include all three of the Forest
                        Service’s major organizational areas—the National Forest System, which
                        includes the national forests; State and Private Forestry programs, which
                        include those for hazardous fuel reduction; and the Research and
                        Development arm of the agency, which conducts fire-related research.
                        Within the National Forest System, such a strategy will need to draw funds
                        and staff from many of the agency’s nine resource-specific programs,
                        including those responsible for timber, wildlife and fish, recreation, and
                        water and air quality. These programs often have separate staffs in the
                        agency’s headquarters and field offices. Forest Service field staff told us
                        that it is often difficult to undertake needed fuel reduction efforts because
                        the agency’s areas and programs often have different goals, objectives, and
                        funding sources; use different criteria to allocate funds to the field offices;
                        and are not adequately coordinated to focus on overarching priorities,
                        such as fuel reduction.

                        Confronted with other issues that transcend the boundaries of its field and
The Forest Service      program structures, the Forest Service has, on occasion, shown that it can
Has Adequately          develop and implement a cohesive strategy. For example, together with
Addressed Some          the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the
                        Forest Service developed and is implementing a regional land management
Issues That Transcend   strategy in the Pacific Northwest called the Northwest Forest Plan. The
Its Boundaries, but     plan provides management direction for 22.3 million acres of land
                        managed by the two agencies—including 19 national forests and 7 BLM
Not Others              districts—in the range of the threatened northern spotted owl.2 The
                        agencies completed the plan expeditiously and at a relatively low cost
                        compared with past national forest planning efforts. The plan not only
                        resulted in the federal courts’ lifting the injunctions that had brought
                        timber sales on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest to a virtual halt, but
                        also provided guidance on protecting the environment across the

                        Key factors that contributed to the timely and cost-effective development
                        of the Northwest Forest Plan included the (1) sense of urgency created by
                        the court injunctions and (2) strong leadership displayed by top-level
                        officials in developing the plan. Moreover, the plan provides the agencies’
                        land managers with adequate direction for implementation and sets
                        standards for holding them accountable. In addition, the plan has been
                        identified as a special project for funding in the Forest Service’s fiscal year

                         Ecosystem Planning: Northwest Forest and Interior Columbia River Basin Plans Demonstrate
                        Improvements in Land-Use Planning (GAO/RCED-99-64, May 26, 1999).

                        Page 3                                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-241
                          budget justifications, and funds are withheld from the regions’ and forests’
                          budgets to develop and implement the plan before they are allocated to
                          resource-specific programs.

                          Other agencywide issues, however, have languished for years as the Forest
                          Service has undertaken study after study without ever developing a
                          strategy or has developed a strategy but left its implementation to the
                          discretion of its independent and highly autonomous regional offices and
                          forests with mixed results. In fiscal year 1991, for example, the Congress
                          asked the Forest Service to develop a multiyear strategy to reduce the
                          escalating costs of its timber program by not less than 5 percent per year.
                          The agency responded by undertaking a cost-reduction study and issuing a
                          report in April 1993. However, the Forest Service left the implementation
                          of the field-level actions to the discretion of each of its nine regional
                          offices, and while some regions rapidly pursued the goal of becoming
                          cost-efficient, others did not. In April 1997, the agency was preparing to
                          undertake the third major examination of its timber program in the last 4

                          Similarly, the House Committee on the Budget has an ongoing interest in
                          the Forest Service’s efforts to be more cost-effective and businesslike in
                          its operations. In October 1998, the agency agreed to revise the strategic
                          plan that it has developed to comply with the requirements of the
                          Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (the Results Act) to
                          include goals and performance measures for obtaining fair market value
                          for goods, recovering costs for services, and containing expenses.
                          However, to date the agency has not done so.

                          At the Forest Service, a key factor that separates the strategies that are
Reducing the Threat       effectively implemented from those that are not is whether the agency
of Catastrophic           treats the issue as an agencywide priority. For example, improving the
Wildfires Does Not        condition of the road system in the national forests is clearly a high
                          priority within the agency and is one of only four areas emphasized in the
Appear to Be a High       Forest Service’s natural resource agenda. This agenda sets the agency’s
Priority for the Forest   priorities and gives strategic focus to its programs. Under the agenda, and
                          at the direction of the Chief of the Forest Service, the agency is developing
Service                   a long-term forest road policy that will guide (1) the building of new roads;
                          (2) the elimination of old, unneeded ones; (3) the upgrade and
                          maintenance of roads that are important to public access; and (4) the
                          development of new and dependable funding for road management. To
                          accomplish these objectives, the Forest Service has (1) identified the issue

                          Page 4                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-241
as a funding priority in its fiscal year 2000 budget justification,
(2) requested an additional $22.6 million for maintaining and
decommissioning roads during fiscal year 2000, (3) proposed a new
appropriation for fiscal year 2000 that includes moneys for reconstructing
and maintaining roads, and (4) linked the issue to the goals and objectives
in its strategic plan.

In comparison, reducing the growing threat of catastrophic wildfires is not
emphasized in the agency’s natural resource agenda or in its strategic plan,
and top-level management has not been involved in developing a fuel
reduction strategy. In addition, only one of the Forest Service’s three
major organizational areas with responsibility for reducing fuels—State
and Private Forestry programs—has been tasked with developing such a
strategy. A team from various disciplines within the agency is to advise
staff from State and Private Forestry. The strategy is to be developed by
the end of the year, but the team has not yet been formed and a leader has
not yet been appointed. In addition, even though the Forest Service said
that it would need an additional $37 million in fiscal year 2000 to increase
the number of acres treated, the agency did not request any additional
funds and will therefore treat about 60,000 fewer acres next year than it
will treat this year.

Madam Chairman, we recognize that the Forest Service has just begun to
develop a fuel reduction strategy and that priorities can, and do, change. If
reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfires does become a priority, then
we would expect it to be reflected in three documents that the agency will
issue over the next 8 months. The first will be the Forest Service’s updated
strategic plan that is scheduled for release this fall. If fuel reduction has
become a high priority for the agency, then we would expect it to appear
in the strategic plan as an objective or outcome, or at least to be linked to
the plan’s goals and objectives. The second document will be the strategy
itself. A good indicator of the priority given to fuel reduction will be
whether the strategy provides the agency’s land managers with adequate
direction for implementation and sets standards for holding them
accountable or whether it merely provides broad, general objectives and
direction that cannot be quantified or measured. Finally, and probably
most telling of all, will be the Forest Service’s fiscal year 2001 budget
request. If fuel reduction is accorded a high priority, then we would expect
the agency to identify the strategy as a special project for funding and to
withhold funds from the regions’ and forests’ budgets to develop and
implement the strategy before funds are allocated to resource-specific

Page 5                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-241
                 Madam Chairman, this concludes my formal statement. If you or the other
                 Members of the Subcommittee have any questions, we will be pleased to
                 answer them.

                 For future contacts regarding this testimony, please contact Barry T. Hill
Contact and      at (202) 512-8021. Individuals making key contributions to this testimony
Acknowledgment   included Charles S. Cotton, Chester M. Joy, and Michael J. Daulton.

(141349)         Page 6                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-241
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