Wildland Fire Management:

Better Information and a Systematic Process Could Improve Agencies' Approach to Allocating Fuel Reduction Funds and Selecting Projects

GAO-07-1168: Published: Sep 28, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 2007.

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Recognizing that millions of acres are at risk from wildland fire, the federal government expends substantial resources on thinning brush, trees, and other potentially hazardous fuels to reduce the fire risk to communities and the environment. However, questions have been raised about how the agencies responsible for wildland fire management--the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Department of the Interior's (Interior) Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS)--allocate their fuel reduction budgets and select projects. GAO was asked to report on the agencies' processes for allocating funds and selecting projects, and on how, if at all, these processes could be improved to better ensure that they contribute to the agencies' overall goal of reducing risk. To obtain this information, GAO visited headquarters and field offices of all five agencies; obtained data on fuel reduction funding and accomplishments; and reviewed previous evaluations of the fuel reduction program.

In allocating fuel reduction funds and selecting projects, the Forest Service, Interior, and the four Interior agencies use both quantitative processes (such as computer models or scoring systems) and professional judgment. At the national level, the Forest Service uses a computer model to help determine the amount of each regional office's allocation, although the model is being refined and the agency still relies largely on past funding levels. Interior and BLM are also developing computer models--based in part on the Forest Service's--to help allocate funds; of Interior's other agencies, BIA allocates funds based on past regional performance in reducing fuels, FWS uses a computer model, and NPS relies on historical funding levels that were based on a now-discontinued model. At the regional and local levels, the agencies use a variety of quantitative and judgmental processes. Although the Forest Service and Interior are taking steps to enhance their funding allocation and project selection processes, there are several improvements they could make to better ensure that they allocate fuel reduction funds to effectively reduce risk. Specifically, when allocating funds and selecting projects, the agencies could improve their processes by (1) consistently assessing all elements of wildland fire risk--including hazard, risk, and values--at the national, regional, and local levels, in order to identify those lands at highest risk from wildland fire and incorporate this information in the allocation and project selection process; (2) developing and using measures of the effectiveness of fuel reduction treatments in order to estimate how much risk reduction is likely to be achieved through particular treatments and for how long; (3) using this information on effectiveness, once developed, in combination with existing information on treatment costs, to assess and compare the cost-effectiveness of potential treatments in deciding how to optimally allocate funds; (4) clarifying the relative importance of the numerous factors they use in allocating funds, including those factors (such as funding stability and the use of forest products resulting from fuel reduction activities) that are unrelated to risk, treatment effectiveness, or cost effectiveness; and (5) following a more systematic process in allocating funds--that is, a process that is methodical, based on criteria, and applied consistently--to ensure that funds are directed to locations where risk can be reduced most effectively.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve their ability to allocate fuel reduction funds so that these funds contribute most effectively to risk reduction, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to develop a common, systematic funding allocation process in order to enhance the transparency and accountability of their allocation decisions and to ensure a common federal approach to allocating funds. Such a systematic process should serve as the foundation of each agency's allocation process and should be applied at all levels within the agencies. Existing models or those under development may serve as useful prototypes; for example, while we have not assessed its accuracy or technical soundness, the Forest Service's model for allocating funds shows promise as the foundation of a systematic process.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Interior uses a systematic allocation process called the Hazardous Fuels Prioritization and Allocation System (HFPAS) to select and fund the highest priority fuel reduction projects in the highest priority areas.

    Recommendation: To improve their ability to allocate fuel reduction funds so that these funds contribute most effectively to risk reduction, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct the agencies to develop a common, systematic funding allocation process in order to enhance the transparency and accountability of their allocation decisions and to ensure a common federal approach to allocating funds. Such a systematic process should serve as the foundation of each agency's allocation process and should be applied at all levels within the agencies. Existing models or those under development may serve as useful prototypes; for example, while we have not assessed its accuracy or technical soundness, the Forest Service's model for allocating funds shows promise as the foundation of a systematic process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Forest Service's Fire and Aviation Management branch, the Forest Service now uses a systematic process known as HFPAS in allocating all of its net hazardous fuel allocation to the Regions. Forest Service regions are also required to use HFPAS in allocating funds to individual national forests. As a result, we consider this recommendation to be implemented.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct their agencies to develop information to support this systematic process. Development of the information should include developing and implementing a common approach to risk assessment, to provide for a broad, national assessment of hazard, risk, and values, as in the Forest Service's allocation model, as well as more refined regional and local assessments.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct their agencies to develop information to support this systematic process. Development of the information should include developing and implementing a common approach to risk assessment, to provide for a broad, national assessment of hazard, risk, and values, as in the Forest Service's allocation model, as well as more refined regional and local assessments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service's Hazardous Fuel Prioritization and Allocation System (HFPAS) process for allocating funds includes elements that assess risk, and input data for these elements have been improved since the system was first established. Funding allocation and project selection decisions are made within the HFPAS framework at the national, regional, and local levels, with additional refinements and local information used at the regional and local levels.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct their agencies to develop information to support this systematic process. Development of the information should include devoting resources to developing a measure of, and subsequently collecting data on, fuel reduction effectiveness, so that the agencies can usefully estimate the extent and duration of risk reduction from potential fuel treatments. Because developing the measure and collecting data are likely to be difficult and time-consuming endeavors, the agencies might find it useful to proceed with convening a panel of experts to devise a rudimentary framework for estimating treatment effectiveness.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Open

    Comments: Interior is working with the federal Joint Fire Science Program to develop a measure of fuel treatment effectiveness. Interior also considers treatment effectiveness in its project priority system, but currently relies on professional judgment to estimate effectiveness.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct their agencies to develop information to support this systematic process. Development of the information should include devoting resources to developing a measure of, and subsequently collecting data on, fuel reduction effectiveness, so that the agencies can usefully estimate the extent and duration of risk reduction from potential fuel treatments. Because developing the measure and collecting data are likely to be difficult and time-consuming endeavors, the agencies might find it useful to proceed with convening a panel of experts to devise a rudimentary framework for estimating treatment effectiveness.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct their agencies to develop information to support this systematic process. Development of the information should include using information on risk and fuel treatment effectiveness, once available, in concert with information on the cost of treatments, to assess the cost-effectiveness of various potential fuel reduction treatments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: Although the Forest Service expects to implement this recommendation in the future, it has not yet done so because the agency must first collect more data on treatment effectiveness.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should direct their agencies to develop information to support this systematic process. Development of the information should include using information on risk and fuel treatment effectiveness, once available, in concert with information on the cost of treatments, to assess the cost-effectiveness of various potential fuel reduction treatments.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should provide guidance that clearly distinguishes the relative importance of the various factors used in allocating funds and selecting projects, including the importance of risk, effectiveness, and cost in comparison with other factors. This guidance should also distinguish the relative priority of different values at risk, especially different elements within the wildland-urban interface, such as homes, power lines, and municipal watersheds.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Interior has distinguished the relative importance of various factors used to set priorities and allocate funds. Specifically, through its Hazardous Fuels Prioritization and Allocation System (HFPAS), Interior established weights for all factors, and uses these weights to assign priority for areas and projects and to allocate fuel reduction funds. To distinguish the relative priority of different elements within the wildland-urban interface (WUI), Interior established 3 different weights corresponding to the 3 categories of WUI described in a 2001 federal register notice. In addition, Interior uses improved national data on location of structures and population.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should provide guidance that clearly distinguishes the relative importance of the various factors used in allocating funds and selecting projects, including the importance of risk, effectiveness, and cost in comparison with other factors. This guidance should also distinguish the relative priority of different values at risk, especially different elements within the wildland-urban interface, such as homes, power lines, and municipal watersheds.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Forest Service has not provided additional clarification on the relative importance of various factors considered in allocating fuel reduction funding. In particular, the agency has not clarified the relative importance of different elements within the wildland-urban interface.

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