Wildland Fire Management:

Additional Actions Required to Better Identify and Priorities Lands Needing Fuels Reduction

GAO-03-805: Published: Aug 15, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 15, 2003.

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The density of the nation's forests, along with drought and other weather conditions, has fueled wildland fires that have required billions of dollars to suppress and has forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes. The Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (Interior) are collaborating on a long-term effort to reduce the risk these fires pose. GAO was asked, among other things, to (1) assess the agencies' efforts to determine which federal lands require fuels reduction treatments, (2) determine how lands are prioritized for treatment, and (3) assess how progress is measured and reported.

The Forest Service and Interior have identified three categories of land for fuels reduction: (1) lands with excess fuels buildup, (2) lands in the wildland-urban interface where federal lands surround or are adjacent to urban development and communities, and (3) lands where vegetation grows rapidly and requires regular maintenance treatments to prevent excess fuels buildup. However, the agencies have not yet reliably estimated the amount or identified the location of these lands. Without identifying these lands there is no baseline against which to assess progress under the fuels reduction program. Local land management units prioritize lands for fuels reduction using a variety of methods, including professional judgment and ranking systems. Prioritization methods vary, in part, because the Forest Service and Interior have not issued specific national guidance on prioritization. Without specific national guidance on prioritization, it is difficult for the Forest Service and Interior to ensure that the highest priority fuels reduction projects nationwide are being implemented. A number of factors, including weather and diversion of resources to fire suppression have hindered the Forest Service's and Interior's ability to complete their annual fuels reduction workloads. While agency officials are addressing some of these factors, others, such as weather, are beyond human control. As a result, agency officials are uncertain whether increased funding would necessarily result in a proportional increase in acres treated. The Forest Service and Interior are developing results-oriented performance measures to assess the effectiveness of treatments in reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires. However, since the agencies have not identified the amount or location of lands with excess fuels buildup, there is currently no baseline from which to assess program performance. In addition, annual performance reports provide misleading information on the overall progress being achieved under the fuels reduction program because the agencies are reporting all acres treated annually without separately reporting on acres that are treated to maintain a low level of wildfire risk and other acres that require several years of treatments to reduce risk.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOI has not implemented this recommendation and does not anticipate doing so in the foreseeable future.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that federal lands most in need of fuels reduction are treated, and provide the Congress and the relevant agencies with better information for making fuels reduction funding decisions, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to distinguish in annual performance reports (1) acres that are treated to reduce the level of risk of wildfire from high or moderate to low; (2) acres that require multiple treatments over several years to reduce their risk of wildfire; and (3) acres being treated to maintain their low risk to wildfire, to more accurately reflect the actual progress being made under the fuels reduction program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: LANDFIRE data and modeling system identification of the location and amount of lands needing repeated fuels treatment is complete for the Western states and underway for the Eastern states.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that federal lands most in need of fuels reduction are treated, and provide the Congress and the relevant agencies with better information for making fuels reduction funding decisions, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to decide whether lands that require regular maintenance treatments are an important area needing continuous fuels reduction treatments and, if so, identify the amount and location of these lands nationwide to facilitate the prioritization of fuels reduction treatments.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: LANDFIRE data and modeling system identification of the location and amount of lands needing repeated fuels treatment is complete for the Western states and underway for the Eastern states.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that federal lands most in need of fuels reduction are treated, and provide the Congress and the relevant agencies with better information for making fuels reduction funding decisions, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to decide whether lands that require regular maintenance treatments are an important area needing continuous fuels reduction treatments and, if so, identify the amount and location of these lands nationwide to facilitate the prioritization of fuels reduction treatments.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service has not implemented this recommendation and has no plans to do so.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that federal lands most in need of fuels reduction are treated, and provide the Congress and the relevant agencies with better information for making fuels reduction funding decisions, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to develop a consistent, specific definition of the wildland-urban interface so that detailed, comparable nationwide data can be collected to identify the amount and location of lands in the wildland-urban interface which will facilitate the prioritization of fuels reduction treatments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Interior has not implemented this recommendation and has no plans to do so.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that federal lands most in need of fuels reduction are treated, and provide the Congress and the relevant agencies with better information for making fuels reduction funding decisions, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to develop a consistent, specific definition of the wildland-urban interface so that detailed, comparable nationwide data can be collected to identify the amount and location of lands in the wildland-urban interface which will facilitate the prioritization of fuels reduction treatments.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2003, the Wild Fire Leadership Council endorsed the national implementation of LANDFIRE. The development cost for LANDFIRE is apportioned between the Forest Service (60 percent) and Department of the Interior (40 percent). The Department of the Interior's share for LANDFIRE in 2005 will be $4.5 million.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that federal lands most in need of fuels reduction are treated, and provide the Congress ande the relevant agencies with better information for making fuels reduction funding decisions, the Seceretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to fund and implement LANDFIRE so they can more accurately identify the amount and location of lands with excess fuels buildup and facilitate the prioritization of fuels reduction treatments.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2003, the Wild Fire Leadership Council endorsed the national implementation of LANDFIRE. The Forest Service is the designated lead agency for LANDFIRE and it is in the first year of a 5-year, $40 million total funding plan to implement the program.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that federal lands most in need of fuels reduction are treated, and provide the Congress ande the relevant agencies with better information for making fuels reduction funding decisions, the Seceretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to fund and implement LANDFIRE so they can more accurately identify the amount and location of lands with excess fuels buildup and facilitate the prioritization of fuels reduction treatments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  8. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service has not implemented this recommendation and does not anticipate doing so in the foreseeable future.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that federal lands most in need of fuels reduction are treated, and provide the Congress and the relevant agencies with better information for making fuels reduction funding decisions, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to distinguish in annual performance reports (1) acres that are treated to reduce the level of risk of wildfire from high or moderate to low; (2) acres that require multiple treatments over several years to reduce their risk of wildfire; and (3) acres being treated to maintain their low risk to wildfire, to more accurately reflect the actual progress being made under the fuels reduction program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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