Forest Service:

Information on Decisions Involving Fuels Reduction Activities

GAO-03-689R: Published: May 14, 2003. Publicly Released: May 14, 2003.

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Human activities--especially the federal government's decades-old policy of suppressing all wildland fires--have resulted in dangerous accumulations of brush, small trees, and other vegetation on federal lands. This vegetation has increasingly provided fuel for large, intense wildland fires, particularly in the dry, interior western United States. The scale and intensity of the fires in the 2000 wildland fire season made it one of the worst in 50 years. That season capped a decade characterized by dramatic increases in the number of wildland fires and the costs of suppressing them. These fires have also posed special risks to communities in the wildland-urban interface--where human development meets or intermingles with undeveloped wildland--as well as to watersheds and other resources, such as threatened and endangered species, clean water, and clean air. The centerpiece of the federal response to the growing threat of wildland fires has been the development of the National Fire Plan. This plan advocates a new approach to wildland fires by shifting emphasis from the reactive to the proactive--from attempting to suppress wildland fires to reducing the buildup of hazardous vegetation that fuels fires. The plan recognizes that unless these fuels are reduced, the number of severe wildland fires and the costs associated with suppressing them will continue to increase. Implementation of the National Fire Plan began in fiscal year 2001; full implementation of the plan is expected to be a long-term, multibillion-dollar effort. In fiscal year 2001, the first year the National Fire Plan was in effect, the Congress substantially increased funding for hazardous forest fuels reduction--from $108 million in FY 2000 to $401 million in FY 2001. The Congress continued this increased funding level for 2002 and 2003. Among the federal agencies, the Forest Service receives, by far, the largest portion of these funds. Since the National Fire Plan began emphasizing the need to reduce forest fuels buildup and the Congress has supported this initiative with substantially increased funding, concerns have been raised about delays in implementing forest fuels reduction projects. Essentially, these concerns focus on whether Forest Service decisions to implement specific forest fuels reduction activities are being delayed by the appeals and litigation of these decisions. In August 2001, we were asked to report on some limited aspects of this issue. We provided this information to the congressional requesters on August 31, 2001. In 2002, the Forest Service also analyzed specific aspects of this issue and provided its findings to the Congress. While the subject of these reports was the same, the specific objectives and scope of the analyses differed considerably. Not unexpectedly, these differences led to different analytical results. Accordingly, in the summer of 2002, Congress asked us to perform a more comprehensive analysis of the issue. Specifically, we determined (1) the number of decisions involving fuels reduction activities and the number of acres affected in FY 2001 and FY 2002, (2) the number of decisions that were appealed and/or litigated and the number of acres affected in FY 2001 and FY 2002, (3) the outcomes of the appealed and/or litigated decisions and the names of the appellants and plaintiffs, (4) whether the appeals were processed within prescribed time frames, (5) the number of acres treated or planned to be treated by each of the fuels reduction methods, and (6) the number of decisions involving fuels reduction activities in the wildlandurban interface and inventoried roadless areas.

In brief, the national forests reported that 762 decisions involved fuels reduction activities in FY 2001 and FY 2002. The fuels reduction activities in these decisions covered 4.7 million acres. The national forests originally reported 851 decisions involving fuels reduction activities. Of these, we eliminated 67 because respondents did not identify fuels reduction as a stated purpose of the activities. We also eliminated 22 decisions because they may not have been issued in FY 2001 or FY 2002. Further, 180 decisions were appealed affecting 900,000 acres. These decisions represented 24 percent of all decisions or 59 percent of appealable decisions. Generally, decisions that were categorically excluded from the requirement to prepare an environmental impact statement are not appealable; 457 decisions covering 3 million acres were not appealable. Conversely, decisions that were issued after preparation of an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement are appealable; 305 decisions covering 1.7 million acres were appealable. All decisions can be litigated; 23, or 3 percent of decisions were litigated, affecting 100,000 acres. The national forests processed 79 percent of appeals within the prescribed 90-day time frame. The national forests reported many reasons for exceeding the 90-day time limit 21 percent of the time, including the following: in general, staffing was inadequate; insufficient staff were available around the holiday season; appeals were backlogged; and settlement of some appeals was imminent. The national forests planned to use prescribed burning on 3.3 million acres and mechanical treatments on 800,000 acres. In addition, the national forests reported using other methods on 1.1 million acres (mostly because of an annual firewood removal program at one forest). Because the same acreage can be treated by more than one method, the sum is greater than the total acreage treated. The national forests issued 464 decisions involving fuels reduction activities in the wildland-urban interface covering 1.5 million acres of planned treatments. Of these, 163 were appealable, and 84 were appealed. 73 decisions involved fuels reduction activities in inventoried roadless areas covering 200,000 acres of planned treatments. Of these 73 decisions, 39 were appealable, and 24 were appealed.

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