oversight

Federal Land Management: Comments on Selected Provisions of S. 1320--A Bill to Revise Federal Land Management Planning

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-07-22.

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 Public Land
                    Management, Committee on Energy and Natural
                    Resources, U. S. Senate


For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                    FEDERAL LAND
2:00 p. m. EDT
Thursday            MANAGEMENT
July 22. 1999



                    Comments on Selected
                    Provisions of S. 1320 - A Bill
                    to Revise Federal Land
                    Management Planning
                    Statement of Barry T. Hill, Associate Director,
                    Energy, Resources, and Science Issues,
                    Resources, Community, and Economic
                    Development Division




GAO/T-RCED-99-270
    Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

    We are here today to discuss the planning-related provisions of titles I and
    II of S. 1320—the Public Lands Planning and Management Improvement
    Act of 1999. The bill would provide new authority and give greater
    responsibility and accountability to the Department of Agriculture’s Forest
    Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management
    (BLM) for planning and managing federal lands under their jurisdiction.

    Over the last decade, we have identified long-standing deficiencies in, as
    well as improvements to, the planning processes of the Forest Service and
    BLM.1 In addition, we have made numerous recommendations to improve
    the cost-effectiveness and timeliness of the agencies’ decision-making and
    to better ensure that planned objectives are achieved. As requested, our
    testimony today will draw from our prior work to address three issues:
    (1) the statutory basis for the Forest Service’s current mission priorities,
    (2) the clarity of the mission statement in S. 1320, and (3) the extent to
    which the bill addresses identified planning deficiencies. In summary:

•   Over the past 100 years, the Congress has enacted four principal
    multiple-use laws that guide the management of the 155 national forests in
    the National Forest System. However, the forests’ management is guided
    increasingly by the requirements in environmental laws that apply not only
    to the Forest Service but also to other federal agencies. These laws, unlike
    the Forest Service’s multiple-use laws, give priority to protecting natural
    resources. The implementation of these environmental laws has evolved
    over many years in response to implementing regulations and judicial
    interpretations, and the Congress has never explicitly acknowledged the
    effects of these laws, regulations, and judicial decisions on the production
    of goods and services on the national forests.

•   The mission statement in S. 1320 would make it clear that the overriding
    priority of the Forest Service and BLM is ecosystem sustainability. This
    mission statement is consistent with the evolving mission of the Forest
    Service, which favors resource protection over production, as well as with
    the fundamental goal of maintaining and restoring ecological sustainability
    expressed in the agency’s June 12, 1999, preliminary draft planning rule. It
    is also consistent with the overarching objective of ecological
    sustainability identified in a March 15, 1999, report by a committee of
    scientists convened by the Secretary of Agriculture to review and evaluate

    1
    See app. I for pertinent GAO products on the decision-making processes of the Forest Service and
    BLM.



    Page 1                                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-270
    the Forest Service’s planning process and to identify changes that may be
    needed to the agency’s planning regulations.2 Moreover, the mission
    statement in S. 1320 acknowledges the effects of sustaining ecosystems on
    the availability of other uses on the lands managed by the Forest Service
    and BLM. According to the mission statement, other uses may be available
    to an extent that is consistent with ecosystem sustainability. Thus, the
    bill’s mission statement makes it clear that goods and services on the
    agencies’ lands would be limited to the types, levels, and mixes imposed
    by considerations of land health and ecological sustainability. However,
    other sections of the bill still require some fine tuning and refinement to
    harmonize them with the agencies’ new mission of ecosystem
    sustainability. In addition, we see two significant challenges that must be
    met if the agencies are to effectively implement their new mission. The
    first is adequately quantifying and measuring “ecosystem sustainability.”
    Without this information, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the
    agencies to (1) identify where or under what circumstances they should
    actively manage degraded lands to restore them rather than allow nature
    to take its course and (2) demonstrate that goods and services can be
    produced in ways that are consistent with sustaining ecosystems. The
    second challenge will be to determine whether the existing statutory
    framework of environmental laws enables the agencies to ensure
    ecosystem sustainability. Currently, there is no statute that specifically
    requires federal agencies to sustain ecosystems as such. Therefore, the
    agencies would need to turn to the laws and regulations intended to
    protect individual natural resources—such as species, water, and air.
    However, the agencies do not know whether these laws will provide the
    minimum level of ecological health needed to sustain ecosystems.
    Moreover, satisfying the requirements for protecting specific resources
    may not always be consistent with providing the conditions needed to
    sustain ecosystems, at least in the short term.

•   S. 1320 also begins to address many of the long-standing planning
    deficiencies that have contributed to delays, increased costs, and unmet
    objectives. For example, the bill would (1) require planning to be
    completed within discrete time frames, (2) require the agencies to
    consider funding constraints when preparing their plans, (3) establish
    deadlines for filing appeals and litigation and limit these challenges to the
    issues and stakeholders involved in reaching a decision, and (4) require
    the agencies to monitor the implementation of their plans and adapt their
    management on the basis of new information. However, certain sections of

    2
    Sustaining the People’s Lands: Recommendations for Stewardship of the National Forests and
    Grasslands into the Next Century, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Committee of Scientists,
    Washington, D.C. (Mar. 15, 1999).



    Page 2                                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-270
                      the bill could be improved to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and
                      predictability of the agencies’ planning processes. For example, as written,
                      S. 1320 could limit assessments to lands managed by the Forest Service
                      and BLM. However, to adequately address ecological issues and conditions
                      that transcend the administrative boundaries of the agencies’ land
                      management units, as well as assess the cumulative impacts of proposed
                      activities, assessments will need to include other federal and nonfederal
                      lands. In addition, according to the bill, assessments should consider
                      economic and social as well as ecological effects. These effects will be
                      difficult to consider if assessments are limited to Forest Service and BLM
                      lands.


                      Over the past 2 decades, the Forest Service has refocused its activities,
Management of the     shifting from producing goods and services (such as timber) toward
National Forests Is   protecting land health and forest resources. This shift in emphasis has
Increasingly Guided   evolved in response to the requirements in environmental laws and their
                      implementing regulations and judicial interpretations. However, the
by Environmental      Congress has never explicitly acknowledged the effects of the laws,
Requirements          regulations, and judicial decisions on the agency’s multiple-use mandate.

                      The Congress has enacted four laws specifically to guide the management
                      of the national forests. These laws require the Forest Service to manage
                      the 192 million acres of land in the National Forest System under the
                      principles of multiple-use and sustained-yield to meet the diverse needs of
                      the American people. Under the Organic Administration Act of 1897, the
                      national forests are to be established to improve and protect the forests
                      within their boundaries or to secure favorable water flow conditions and
                      provide a continuous supply of timber to citizens. The Multiple-Use
                      Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 added outdoor recreation, range, watersheds,
                      and fish and wildlife. This act also requires the agency to manage its lands
                      to provide high levels of all of these uses to current users (the multiple-use
                      principle) while sustaining the lands’ ability to produce these uses for
                      future generations (the sustained-yield principle). The Forest and
                      Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974 (known as RPA)
                      establishes a long-range strategic planning process through which the
                      Forest Service reviews the condition of the country’s long-range
                      renewable resources. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA),
                      which amended RPA, requires each national forest or group of forests to
                      develop a land and resource management plan, commonly called a forest
                      plan. Under the act and its implementing regulations, the Forest Service is
                      to (1) recognize wilderness as a use of the forests and (2) provide for the



                      Page 3                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-270
diversity of plant and animal communities (biological diversity). In
addition, this act attempts to facilitate continuous levels of timber
production on Forest Service lands while, at the same time, protecting and
improving other forest resources, such as air, water, and wildlife and fish
habitat.

While establishing long-term goals, NFMA does not provide direction for
achieving them. For example, it does not indicate how much timber and
other commodities should be provided, which uses of national forests
should have priority, or how conflicts among uses should be resolved. The
act’s legislative history is also silent on these matters. As a result, the
Forest Service is expected to provide for continuous levels of certain
goods and services and for the protection of other resources, even when
providing for one may conflict with sustaining another. However, because
of growing demands for these uses, the Forest Service is increasingly
unable to avoid, resolve, or mitigate conflicts among competing uses on
national forests by separating them into different areas or over time.

While the Organic Administration Act, the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield
Act, RPA, and NFMA provide little direction for the agency in resolving
conflicts among competing uses on its lands, the requirements in
environmental laws and their implementing regulations and judicial
interpretations do. These laws, unlike the Forest Service’s multiple-use
laws, give priority to protecting natural resources. In particular, section 7
of the Endangered Species Act represents a congressional design to give
greater priority to the protection of endangered species than to the other
missions of the Forest Service and other federal agencies.3 When
proposing a project, the Forest Service bears the burden of demonstrating
that its actions will not likely jeopardize threatened and endangered
species. The agency is also required by regulations implementing the
National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) to assess the direct,
indirect, and cumulative effects of activities occurring outside the national
forests, such as timber harvesting on state and private lands, in deciding
which uses to emphasize on its lands. In addition, other environmental
laws, their implementing regulations, and judicial interpretations require
the Forest Service to protect other components of natural systems,
including water and air. Moreover, under the agency’s biological diversity
requirement for fish and wildlife habitat—found in its regulations
implementing NFMA—the Forest Service is to maintain well-distributed
viable populations of existing native and desired nonnative vertebrate
species in a planning area.

3
 TVA v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153, 185 (1978).



Page 4                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-270
                         Over time, the requirements in environmental laws and their implementing
                         regulations and judicial interpretations, together with changing public
                         values and concerns about the management of the national forests and
                         better ecological information, have led the Forest Service to change the
                         mix of its activities, shifting the focus from production toward protection.
                         For instance, the number of threatened and endangered species on
                         national forests and grasslands has risen more than sevenfold in the 26
                         years since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973.

                         In the mid-1970s when NFMA was enacted, the agency believed that its
                         mission was primarily to produce timber and, more generally, to serve as a
                         steward of the land. Today, the Forest Service states that maintaining and
                         restoring the health of the land is its overriding priority and that outputs of
                         goods and services will be accomplished within the “ecological
                         sideboards imposed by land health.” Moreover, within the decision space
                         imposed by these ecological sideboards, the agency has increasingly
                         chosen to emphasize land health and ecological sustainability. For
                         example, the Forest Service has used its discretionary authority to set
                         aside or withdraw an increasing percentage of lands for conservation.

                         To accommodate the requirements of the Endangered Species Act and
                         other environmental laws, the Forest Service, BLM, and other federal land
                         management agencies have turned to a science-based, ecological approach
                         for managing their lands and resources. This approach, called ecosystem
                         management, is designed to ensure the sustained functioning and diversity
                         of natural systems—such as watersheds, airsheds, soils, and vegetative and
                         animal communities—by analyzing and planning along the boundaries of
                         these systems rather than along the boundaries of national forests and
                         other federal land management units. Then, for example, the Endangered
                         Species Act can be used as a “fine filter” to catch and support the special
                         needs of species that otherwise would go unmet.


                         As we reported in April 1997, statutory and other changes to improve the
S. 1320 Makes Clear      efficiency and effectiveness of the Forest Service’s decision-making
That Priority Is to Be   process cannot be identified until the Congress and the agency reach
Given to Sustaining      agreement on the Forest Service’s mission priorities. Without such an
                         agreement, we see distrust and gridlock prevailing in any effort to
Ecosystems               streamline the agency’s statutory framework. Moreover, reaching
                         agreement on the Forest Service’s mission priorities is key to developing
                         the quantifiable goals and objectives as well as the long-term and annual




                         Page 5                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-270
performance measures necessary to hold the agency accountable for its
performance.

It appears to us that S. 1320 establishes a starting point for the Congress
and the administration to agree on the mission priorities of both the Forest
Service and BLM. The bill states that the two agencies are to manage their
lands to “assure the health, sustainability, and productivity of the lands’
ecosystems.” This is consistent with the Forest Service’s shift in emphasis
away from producing goods and services and toward protecting land
health and forest resources, as well as with the ecosystem management
approach being used by the Forest Service and BLM to manage their lands
and resources. Similarly, the Forest Service’s June 12, 1999, preliminary
draft planning rule states that the “most fundamental goal of the National
Forest System is to maintain and restore ecological sustainability, the
long-term maintenance of the diversity of native plant and animal
communities, and the productive capacity of ecological systems.” The
agency’s preliminary draft planning rule was, in turn, based on a March 15,
1999, report by an interdisciplinary committee of scientists, which stated
that the Forest Service’s overarching objective should be ecological
sustainability.

By clarifying the mission priorities of the Forest Service and BLM, S. 1320
represents a significant first step toward holding the two agencies
accountable for their performance. The bill also represents a significant
change in mission from its predecessor (S. 1253), which emphasized
multiple uses and sustained yields of goods and services.4 However, other
sections of S. 1320 still require some fine tuning and refinement to
harmonize them with the agencies’ new mission of sustaining ecosystems.

For example, S. 1320 would require the Forest Service and BLM, when
developing a plan and making a decision, to accord “equal consequence”
to five elements, including the production of goods and services and
desired future conditions. However, the bill does not make it clear that
desired future conditions are to reflect the minimum level of ecological
health needed to sustain ecosystems. Moreover, if the overriding mission
priority of the two agencies is to sustain ecosystems and desired future
conditions reflect the minimum level of ecological health needed to do so,
then, it would seem to us, that this element of the plan must have priority
over all other elements. In addition, the bill identifies which law would
prevail in the event of inconsistencies between it and certain other laws,

4
 S. 1253 was introduced in 1997. Eight hearings were held on the bill; however, it was not reported out
of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.



Page 6                                                                          GAO/T-RCED-99-270
                           including NFMA and the statutes governing the management of units of the
                           National Wilderness Preservation, National Wild and Scenic Rivers, and
                           National Trails systems. It does not, however, identify which law would
                           prevail in the event of inconsistencies between it and other environmental
                           laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, NEPA, and the Clean Water Act.


Ecosystem Sustainability   We also see two significant challenges that must be met in implementing
Must Be Adequately         an ecosystem sustainability mission. The first is adequately quantifying
Quantified and Measured    and measuring the term “ecosystem sustainability.” For instance,
                           according to the committee of scientists, sustaining ecosystems would
                           require maintaining the composition (biological diversity of plants and
                           animals), structure (biological and physical attributes, such as large trees,
                           unconstrained rivers, and habitat patterns), and processes (including
                           photosynthesis, water movement, and disturbance cycles) of biological
                           and ecological systems. However, the Forest Service and BLM do not know
                           what these systems are, where they are, what ecological condition they are
                           in, or what their ecological condition should be. Without this information,
                           it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the agencies to identify where or
                           under what circumstances they should actively manage degraded lands to
                           restore them rather than allow nature to take its course. Moreover, to the
                           extent that the bill would require the production of goods and services to
                           be consistent with sustaining ecosystems, as suggested by its mission
                           statement, their production could be halted if the agencies were unable to
                           adequately demonstrate that human activities would not likely jeopardize
                           the minimum ecological conditions necessary to sustain ecosystems. This
                           stalemate, in turn, could adversely affect the individuals and communities
                           that are economically dependent on the national forests but are precluded
                           from forming reasonable expectations about the future availability of
                           goods and services from the forests.


The Adequacy of the        The second challenge will be to determine whether the existing statutory
Existing Statutory         framework of environmental laws enables the agencies to ensure
Framework to Sustain       ecosystem sustainability. Currently, there is no statute that specifically
                           requires federal agencies to sustain ecosystems as such. Therefore, the
Ecosystems Must Be         agencies would need to turn to the laws and regulations intended to
Determined                 protect individual natural resources. For instance, a stated purpose of the
                           Endangered Species Act is to conserve the ecosystems upon which
                           endangered and threatened species depend, and the regulations adopted
                           under NEPA require federal agencies to identify and consider the effects of
                           their activities on ecosystems. However, the agencies do not know



                           Page 7                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-270
whether these laws will provide the minimum level of ecological health
needed to sustain ecosystems. As the understanding of ecosystems
increases through experience gained from ecosystem management
initiatives—such as the Northwest Forest Plan—needed changes to
existing legislation can be sought to better define and achieve the
minimum required level of ecosystem sustainability.

There are, however, indications that satisfying the requirements for
protecting specific resources may be difficult to reconcile with providing
the conditions needed to sustain ecosystems, at least in the short term. For
example, the most extensive and serious problem related to the health of
the 91 national forests located in the interior West is the excessive
accumulation of vegetation that forms fuels for large, intense,
uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires.5 Fuels are
accumulating, in large part, because for decades the Forest Service has
suppressed fire in forests where frequent, low-intensity fires historically
removed flammable undergrowth without significantly damaging larger
trees. However, many agency officials told us they do not believe it is
possible to set controlled fires to reduce fuels on a scale replicating that of
natural fires and still meet air quality standards under the Clean Air Act.
The Forest Service and EPA are conducting a 3-year experiment to better
determine whether and how it will be possible to reconcile controlled
burning and air quality standards. Moreover, mechanically removing fuels
(through commercial timber harvesting and other means) can have
adverse effects on wildlife habitat and water quality in many areas, at least
in the short term.

S. 1320 would begin to address the requirements of planning and
environmental laws that may be difficult to reconcile in the short term
with long-term ecosystem sustainability. For instance, when a forest
supervisor or BLM district manager (after providing an opportunity for
review by the appropriate state governor) finds that a prescribed fire will
(1) reduce the likelihood of greater emissions from a wildfire and (2) be
conducted so as to minimize impacts on air quality to the extent
practicable, the prescribed fire is deemed under the bill to be in
compliance with applicable requirements of the Clean Air Act. The bill
would also provide that when a state has certified that a nonpoint source
of water pollution, such as a timber-harvesting operation and related
roads, meets best management practices or their functional equivalent, the



5
 Western National Forests: A Cohesive Strategy Is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats
(GAO/RCED-99-65, Apr. 2, 1999).



Page 8                                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-270
                        activity is deemed to be in compliance with applicable provisions of the
                        Clean Water Act.

                        However, as we observed in our April 1997 report on the Forest Service’s
                        decision-making process, unintended consequences have often been the
                        rule rather than the exception in implementing planning and
                        environmental statutes affecting federal land management. Therefore, any
                        proposal to change the current statutory framework would require careful
                        consideration to ensure that no unintended consequences would occur.
                        Some Forest Service officials, including a former Chief, believe that an
                        independent, bipartisan commission may need to be established to
                        thoroughly review the current statutory framework before making
                        recommended changes to laws. Therefore, a more systematic and
                        comprehensive approach may be needed to ensure that the requirements
                        of planning and environmental laws are consistent with the goal of
                        ecosystem sustainability.


                        Procedural changes to the agencies’ planning processes are needed. As we
S. 1320 Begins to       have previously reported, the Forest Service’s planning process is clearly
Address Many            broken and in need of repair and the agency’s limited resources are
Long-Standing           increasingly being consumed by efforts to comply with procedural
                        requirements. The fundamental problem with the agency’s planning
Planning Deficiencies   process, as highlighted in our April 1997 testimony on delays to revising
                        the Tongass forest plan, is the lack of accountability for making timely,
                        orderly, and cost-effective decisions. Therefore, the objective of proposed
                        procedural changes to the Forest Service’s planning should be to ensure
                        that scientifically credible and legally defensible decisions are made in a
                        timely, orderly, and cost-effective manner.

                        We believe that S. 1320 begins to address many of the long-standing
                        planning deficiencies that have contributed to delays, increased costs, and
                        unmet objectives. However, certain sections of the bill still could be
                        strengthened to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the agencies’
                        planning processes. For ease of discussion, we have divided planning into
                        two components—process and participation. Process, in turn, includes
                        data and decisions, while participation consists of interagency
                        coordination and public involvement.


Data                    As we have previously reported, data gathered by federal agencies are
                        often not comparable; large gaps in the available information exist; and the



                        Page 9                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-270
    agencies may not know who has what information or how existing
    information can be made available within agencies, across agencies, and
    to the public. These data limitations continue to hinder the development of
    federal land management plans, result in legal challenges to the plans, and
    limit the implementation of efforts to expedite decision-making. In
    addition, until recently, the Forest Service and BLM lacked an approach to
    adequately assess ecological, social, and economic issues that transcend
    the administrative boundaries of their land management units—such as
    issues concerning watersheds or the habitats of wide-ranging species,
    including birds, bears, and salmon. The lack of such an approach has
    contributed to the inefficiency in developing, and ineffectiveness in
    implementing, federal land management plans. Moreover, once a plan is
    approved, agencies must monitor its implementation to meet long-term
    and annual goals and objectives and to adapt the plan’s management when
    new information becomes available. Historically, however, the Forest
    Service has failed to live up to its own monitoring requirements,
    particularly those for monitoring the effects of past management
    decisions. The failure to monitor and evaluate its decisions could expose
    the agency to further litigation.

    S. 1320 includes provisions to address these data limitations. Specifically,
    the bill would (1) authorize the Forest Service and BLM to assess issues and
    conditions that transcend the administrative boundaries of their land
    management units and (2) require the agencies to monitor the
    implementation of their plans and adapt their management on the basis of
    new information. We offer the following observations and suggestions for
    your consideration in fine-tuning the data-related provisions of S. 1320.

•   The bill would allow, but would not require, the agencies to conduct
    assessments. Our work in the Pacific Northwest, the interior Columbia
    River basin, and elsewhere has shown that assessments are often
    necessary and should be required to efficiently and effectively address
    issues and conditions that transcend the administrative boundaries of
    federal land management units.

•   S. 1320 could also limit the assessments to lands managed by the Forest
    Service and BLM. However, to adequately address ecological issues and
    conditions that transcend the administrative boundaries of the agencies’
    land management units, as well as comply with NEPA’s requirement for
    assessing the cumulative impacts of proposed activities, assessments will
    need to include other federal and nonfederal lands. In addition, according
    to the bill, assessments should consider economic and social as well as



    Page 10                                                    GAO/T-RCED-99-270
                ecological effects. These effects will be difficult to consider if assessments
                are limited to Forest Service and BLM lands.

            •   The bill would make it clear that assessments are not decisions, but would
                not specify what their outcome should be. As we found in the interior
                Columbia River basin assessment, the lack of clear objectives can increase
                time and costs. Therefore, assessments should be designed to provide the
                agencies’ managers with adequate direction for reaching informed
                decisions on the issues and conditions addressed in the assessments.

            •   S. 1320 would require the Forest Service and BLM to evaluate whether a
                plan is being implemented as planned (implementation monitoring), but
                not necessarily whether it is accomplishing its intended results
                (effectiveness monitoring) or whether the management direction in the
                plan is the best way to achieve its goals and objectives (validation
                monitoring). All three types of monitoring are important, especially for an
                agency such as the Forest Service, where unintended consequences have
                often been the rule rather than the exception in implementing plans.
                However, monitoring costs can be significant. For example, according to
                the Forest Service, the scientific expertise, data, and technology currently
                needed to conduct the required monitoring of species’ viability far exceed
                the resources envisioned by the agency when it developed the regulations
                implementing NFMA, as well as the resources available to any agency or
                scientific institution. Therefore, it may be important to know the
                magnitude of the costs and resources that would be needed to implement
                a monitoring requirement before enacting it into law.


Decisions       Basing decisions on adequate data, which may require conducting
                assessments as well as adapting management on the basis of new
                information, should help to reduce the time and costs needed to make
                decisions. Forest plans have generally taken from 3 to 10 years to
                complete. For example, the Forest Service spent about 10 years and
                $13 million revising the Tongass forest plan. In addition, the agency has
                often failed to achieve or has altered its planned objectives. For instance,
                the revised Tongass plan was modified within 2 years to reduce the annual
                goal for timber sales by 30 percent. Moreover, after spending over 5 years
                and about $41 million through the end of fiscal year 1998 to develop plans
                for managing federal lands in the interior Columbia River basin, the Forest
                Service and BLM have exceeded time and cost estimates but have still not
                made the necessary decisions and finalized their plans. This planning
                effort has taken longer and cost more than anticipated, in part, because



                Page 11                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-270
    the agencies failed to limit the scope of their decision to issues that are
    appropriately dealt with at the basin scale. However, their development of
    the Northwest Forest Plan has shown, the agencies can, given the right
    incentives, complete an implementable plan expeditiously and at a
    relatively low cost.

    To expedite decision-making, S. 1320 would, among other things, require
    the Forest Service and BLM to (1) identify the issues to be decided, and the
    documentation required, at each level of decision-making; (2) meet
    established deadlines for making decisions; (3) identify the costs to
    implement their plans, as well as the effects of lower appropriation levels
    on accomplishing the plans’ objectives; and (4) generally limit when
    changes to a plan can occur. We offer the following observations and
    suggestions for your consideration in fine-tuning the decision-related
    provisions of S. 1320.

•   The bill would limit decisions to two levels of planning, one of which
    would be the project or site-specific level for management activities. Our
    work has shown that, depending on the issues to be decided, decisions
    may be required at more than one planning level above the project level.
    For instance, in the interior Columbia River basin, the Forest Service and
    BLM believe that a series of decisions will be required that affect federal
    land management. Therefore, a “one-size-fits-all” solution to the number
    of decision levels may not be appropriate. Instead, the Forest Service and
    BLM could be required to identify (1) the issues to be addressed in revising
    or amending their land management plans and (2) the appropriate
    geographical or ecological scales for making management decisions on
    these issues.

•   Under S. 1320, the Forest Service or BLM would be allowed to continue
    implementing management activities under an approved plan while the
    plan was being amended or revised unless otherwise required to stop by a
    provision of the bill, a court order, or a formal declaration by the Secretary
    of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior. However, S. 1320 does not
    identify the criteria that the Secretaries should or must use in reaching
    such decisions. Criteria could help to ensure that the Secretaries’
    decisions are consistent with the agencies’ mission priorities. For instance,
    the criteria could include discontinuing management activities that pose
    clear threats to ecosystem sustainability.




    Page 12                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-270
Interagency Coordination   As the role of environmental laws in the Forest Service’s decision-making
                           has increased, so too has the role of the federal regulatory agencies that
                           are charged with implementing and enforcing them. We have found that
                           disagreements between the Forest Service and federal regulatory
                           agencies—including Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, Commerce’s
                           National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Environmental Protection
                           Agency (EPA)—over the best ways of achieving environmental objectives
                           and of implementing laws and regulations have delayed the development
                           and implementation of forest plans and projects. These disagreements
                           often stem from the agencies’ differing standards for evaluating
                           environmental effects and risks, which in turn reflect their disparate
                           missions and responsibilities. For example, the Forest Service may be
                           willing to accept a greater level of risk to the recovery of a threatened or
                           endangered species under its multiple-use mandate than would the Fish
                           and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service, both of
                           which are charged unambiguously with conserving and protecting species
                           threatened with extinction.

                           S. 1320 would give the Forest Service and BLM more authority and
                           responsibility in meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
                           For instance, the bill would allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to certify
                           the Forest Service and BLM to fulfill the consultation requirements and
                           prepare the “biological opinion” required by the act. (A biological opinion
                           reviews the potential effects of a proposed action on listed species and/or
                           their critical habitat and must be based on the best available biological
                           information.6)

                           Deciding whether to transfer more authority and responsibility for meeting
                           the requirements of the Endangered Species Act from federal regulatory
                           agencies to federal land management agencies is a policy decision for the
                           Congress. However, in our April 1997 report on the Forest Service’s
                           decision-making process, we observed that any potential gains in
                           efficiency from transferring the responsibility for environmental
                           compliance from the regulatory agencies to the Forest Service would need
                           to be weighed against the policy reasons that led originally to separating
                           the responsibility for managing the nation’s forests for multiple uses from
                           the responsibility for ensuring regulatory compliance with environmental
                           and other laws. Although S. 1320 would make clear that the overriding
                           priority of the Forest Service and BLM is ecosystem sustainability,
                           satisfying the requirements for protecting specific resources may not

                           6
                             Endangered Species Act: Types and Number of Implementing Actions (GAO/RCED-92-131BR, May 8,
                           1992).



                           Page 13                                                                  GAO/T-RCED-99-270
                     always be consistent with providing the conditions needed to sustain
                     ecosystems, at least in the short term, and federal regulatory agencies may
                     continue to disagree with the Forest Service and BLM over the best ways of
                     achieving environmental objectives and of implementing laws and
                     regulations.

                     Our work has not examined the conditions that should govern such a
                     transfer. However, we note that the bill, as presently structured, does not
                     identify (1) criteria for certifying the land management agencies, (2) a
                     monitoring role for the regulatory agencies once the land management
                     agencies have been certified, or (3) procedures for revoking the
                     certifications if the Forest Service and BLM fail to adequately carry out
                     their new responsibilities.


Public Involvement   The role of the public in federal land management has also increased.
                     Those concerned about how federal lands are managed have expressed
                     their desire to become more involved in decision-making and have
                     demonstrated their preference for presenting their concerns, positions,
                     and supporting documentation during, rather than after, an agency’s
                     development of proposed plans. They have also signaled their intent to use
                     administrative appeals and lawsuits to challenge decisions that they have
                     not been involved in reaching.

                     As we found in the Pacific Northwest and the interior Columbia River
                     basin, the Forest Service and BLM have improved opportunities for public
                     participation in their decision-making processes. For example, in our
                     July 1998 report on ensuring safe drinking water in western Oregon’s
                     municipal watersheds, we stated that the Forest Service and BLM had
                     shown a willingness to increase the involvement of cities and other
                     stakeholders in their decision-making and to come together with these
                     parties to discuss, understand, and address watershed problems and
                     issues and to implement restoration plans.7

                     However, our work has shown that decision-making on managing federal
                     lands is inherently contentious and that public involvement in the process
                     should not be viewed as a panacea to legal challenges. Dissatisfaction with
                     an agency’s process for public involvement often cannot be dissociated
                     from dissatisfaction with the outcome of the process, and parties opposed
                     to a particular activity, such as timber harvesting, can cause a federal

                     7
                      Oregon Watersheds: Many Activities Contribute to Increased Turbidity During Large Storms
                     (GAO/RCED-98-220, July 29, 1998).



                     Page 14                                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-270
              agency to delay, alter, or withdraw plans and projects by availing
              themselves of the opportunities for administrative appeal and judicial
              review that are provided by statute or regulation.

              As we reported in April 1997, the Forest Service alone receives over 1,200
              administrative appeals to project-level decisions annually, and about 20 to
              30 new lawsuits are filed each year. S. 1320 would, among other things,
              establish deadlines for filing appeals and litigation and limit these
              challenges to the issues and stakeholders involved in reaching the
              contested decision. To the extent that parties have conducted “litigation
              by ambush”—that is, have withheld their concerns, positions, and
              supporting documentation until after a decision has been made—the bill
              may help to ensure that challenges to plans and projects are brought only
              by participants in the agencies’ planning processes.


              In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, as we stated 2 years ago, the Forest Service
Conclusions   has made hard, controversial policy choices in shifting its emphasis from
              production to resource protection.8 Now that it has refocused its priorities,
              we believe that it is up to the Congress to accept or reject the agency’s
              choices and to acknowledge the effects of the new priorities on the mix of
              multiple uses on the national forests. In our view, the mission statement in
              S. 1320 acknowledges the agency’s shift in mission priorities. If enacted,
              this mission statement could allay the concerns of administration officials
              who have been hesitant to suggest procedural changes to environmental
              laws and to the agency’s planning process for fear that the Congress might
              also make substantive changes to the laws with which they would
              disagree. By establishing common ground for discussion, the bill provides
              an opportunity for the administration and the Congress to begin working
              together to identify (1) the procedural changes to the Forest Service’s and
              BLM’s planning processes that are necessary to efficiently and effectively
              ensure ecosystem sustainability and (2) the extent to which such changes
              should be made legislatively.

              Mr. 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.




              8
               The Results Act: Observations on the Forest Service’s May 1997 Draft Plan (GAO/T-RCED-97-223,
              July 31, 1997).



              Page 15                                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-270
                 For future contacts regarding this testimony, please contact Barry T. Hill
Contact and      at (202) 512-3841. Individuals making key contributions to this testimony
Acknowledgment   included Charles Cotton, Chester Joy, and Doreen Feldman.




                 Page 16                                                    GAO/T-RCED-99-270
Page 17   GAO/T-RCED-99-270
Appendix I

Pertinent GAO Reports and Testimonies on
Forest Service and Bureau of Land
Management Decision-Making
              Forest Service: Information on the Forest Service Appeals System
              (GAO/RCED-89-16BR, Feb. 16, 1989).

              Public Lands: Limited Progress in Resource Management Planning
              (GAO/RCED-90-225, Sept. 27, 1990).

              Forest Service: The Flathead National Forest Cannot Meet Its Timber Goal
              (GAO/RCED-91-124, May 10, 1991).

              Ecosystem Management: Additional Actions Needed to Adequately Test a
              Promising Approach (GAO/RCED-94-111, Aug. 16, 1994).

              Forest Service: Factors Affecting Timber Sales in Five National Forests
              (GAO/RCED-95-12, Oct. 28, 1994).

              Forest Service: Issues Relating to Its Decisionmaking Process
              (GAO/T-RCED-96-66, Jan. 25, 1996).

              Forest Service: Issues Related to Managing National Forests for Multiple
              Uses (GAO/T-RCED-96-111, Mar. 26, 1996).

              Forest Service Decision-Making: Greater Clarity Needed on Mission
              Priorities (GAO/T-RCED-97-81, Feb. 25, 1997).

              Forest Service Decision-Making: A Framework for Improving Performance
              (GAO/RCED-97-71, Apr. 29, 1997).

              Tongass National Forest: Lack of Accountability for Time and Costs Has
              Delayed Forest Plan Revision (GAO/T-RCED-97-153, Apr. 29, 1997).

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

              Forest Service Priorities: Evolving Mission Favors Resource Protection
              Over Production (GAO/RCED-99-166, June 17, 1999).




(141359)      Page 18                                                   GAO/T-RCED-99-270
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