GAO Report on Forest Service: Further Work Needed to Address Persistent Management Challenges

here’s the link, and below, the highlights.

In 2009, GAO highlighted management challenges that the Forest Service faced in three key areas—wildland fire management, data on program activities and costs, and financial and performance accountability. The Forest Service has made some improvements, but challenges persist in each of these three areas. In addition, recent GAO reports have identified additional challenges related to program oversight and strategic planning.

Strategies are still needed to ensure effective use of wildland fire management funds. In numerous previous reports, GAO has highlighted the challenges the Forest Service faces in protecting the nation against the threat of wildland fire. The agency continues to take steps to improve its approach, but it has yet to take several key steps—including developing a cohesive wildland fire strategy that identifies potential long-term options for reducing hazardous fuels and responding to fires—that, if completed, would substantially strengthen wildland fire management.

Incomplete data on program activities remain a concern. In 2009, GAO concluded that long-standing data problems plagued the Forest Service, hampering its ability to manage its programs and account for its costs. While GAO has not comprehensively reviewed the quality of all Forest Service data, shortcomings identified during several recent reviews reinforce these concerns. For example, GAO recently identified data gaps in the agency’s system for tracking appeals and litigation of Forest Service projects and in the number of abandoned hardrock mines on its lands.

Even with improvements, financial and performance accountability shortcomings persis
t. Although its financial accountability has improved, the Forest Service continues to struggle to implement adequate internal controls over its funds and to demonstrate how its expenditures relate to the goals in the agency’s strategic plan. For example, in 2010 Agriculture reported that the agency needed to improve controls over its expenditures for wildland fire management and identified the wildland fire suppression program as susceptible to significant improper payments.

Additional challenges related to program oversight and strategic planning have been identified
. Several recent GAO reviews have identified additional challenges facing the Forest Service, which the agency must address if it is to effectively and efficiently fulfill its mission. Specifically, the agency has yet to develop a national land tenure strategy that would protect the public’s interest in land exchanges and return fair value to taxpayers from such exchanges. In addition, it has yet to take recommended steps to align its workforce planning with its strategic plan, which may compromise its ability to carry out its mission; for example, it has not adequately planned for the likely retirement of firefighters, which may reduce the agency’s ability to protect the safety of both people and property. Finally, the Forest Service needs a more systematic, risk-based approach to allocate its law-enforcement resources. Without such an approach it cannot be assured that it is deploying its resources effectively against illegal activities on the lands it manages.

6 thoughts on “GAO Report on Forest Service: Further Work Needed to Address Persistent Management Challenges”

  1. Turning $3000 lightning fires into $30,000,000 Let-Burn firestorms seems like a bad use of limited budget dollars. Not to mention the post-fire costs and impacts for the next 20 years. Not to mention the costs per ton of GHG’s and carbon pushed into the upper atmosphere. Not to mention that resources have to be dedicated to putting a fire out that was allowed to burn, making those same resources unavailable for other wildfires, possibly threatening human developments and lives.

    Is the GAO buying into the Let-Burn program, which doesn’t follow NEPA?

    • Foto: If by “Let-Burn program” you mean Fire Use, then I assume that GAO knows that this type of prescribed fire clearly requires NEPA. If you mean “Appropriate Management Response” in the suppression of wildfires, I refer you to the “Guidance for Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy” which states:

      Response to Wildland Fire
      Fire, as a critical natural process, will be integrated into land and resource management plans and activities on a landscape scale, and across agency boundaries. Response to wildland fires is based on ecological, social and legal consequences of the fire. The circumstances under which a fire occurs, and the likely consequences on firefighter and public safety and welfare, natural and cultural resources, and, values to be protected, dictate the appropriate response to the fire.

      I’m no NEPA expert but it looks like NEPA associated with forest plans would cover this. There might be room to debate that the policy was developed without public involvement or NEPA.. What say you, NEPA buffs?

      The proposed planning rule mentions fire in several places, including:
      “Because fire is an important ecosystem driver, the proposed rule would require that the responsible official would also take wildland fire and opportunities to restore wildland fire ecosystems into account.”

      What seems to be lacking is a regulatory mechanism to better integrate federal fire suppression policy with land management planning on federal lands. Should it be OK for the Wildland Fire Leadership Council to develop policy behind pretty much closed doors?

  2. While I am NOT saying that there is no place for “fire management”, they have, so far, proven that they cannot control fires left to burn for weeks and weeks on end. They always cite “unforeseen weather conditions” as the reason for losing containment. Maybe if they had “formally studied” the situation and acted reasonably, they could have prevented the escape?

    If Let-Burn did follow NEPA, they would go through the formal process, including an EIS, the properly implement such an impactful program. Pretending that Let-Burn has no impacts worth mentioning is illegal. The public MUST be included, as homes and property are being lost, outright, to the catastrophic “goofs” of firefighters. Let-Burn is merely a way to do burning without the liability issues. Extending Let-Burn to include ANY ignition is another goal of “fire management”. They seem intensely arrgant that they can toy with wildfires to accomplish dubious feats under dicey conditions.

    I think I would be in favor of allowing a program like Fire-Use to occur on lands that have been already treated for fuels. However, in this day and age of significantly-reduced fire staffing in States and Counties, overgrown, crowded and dead forests, and more people living in and around our National Forests, the current program CANNOT be safely justified. With MMA’s up to 100,000 acres in size, they dwarf timber projects that sometimes require an EIS. And not addressing the impacts of burning 100,000 acres in a semi-controlled manner borders on the criminal. It smacks of environmental destruction for profit (just like foresters are often accused of. Knowing full well how eager firefighters are to go on as many large, profitable fires as possible.)

    Prescribed fire is often talked about as the important component to forest management. Alas, that is the least-preferred technique to treat large buildups of fuels. With Let-Burns, there is no smoke mitigation, fuels treatments, firelines in-place, or burn plan. They just “wing-it” as it happens, much to the horror of local residents. “Winging it” is the total opposite of NEPA.

    • Foto, you said:

      With Let-Burns, there is no smoke mitigation, fuels treatments, firelines in-place, or burn plan. They just “wing-it” as it happens, much to the horror of local residents.

      Based on my experience as a firefighter, Type I Planning Section Chief and Assistant Area Commander and my knowledge of Federal fire policy I believe otherwise. First, there is no policy called “let burn”. Second,your contention that fire use has no NEPA, no burn plan, no smoke mitigation, no firelines in place, etc. is just not correct. Also, if we are going to debate these policies further, we need to be clear on the distinction between prescribed fire and appropriate management response in the suppression of wildfire.

      Based on my experience as a wildlife ecologist, I would counter your statement that ” Prescribed fire is often talked about as the important component to forest management. Alas, that is the least-preferred technique to treat large buildups of fuels.”

      In my opinion, used appropriately and in combination with thinnings and mechanical fuel erductionwhen needed, it is in fact the best way to restore resilient ecosystems.

      Yes there are more people living in and around national forests. More needs to be done in partnership with these communities to make them better able to survive wildfire events.

      • Well, OF COURSE there isn’t a policy named “Let-Burn”. However, it is an appropriate nickname for when firefighters don’t put wildfires OUT! “Preserving” wildfires is risky because weather doesn’t always do what is predicted. When remote wildfires at higher elevations burn long enough, eventually winds come up, as they often do, and sends the fire off, over hill, dale, rivers, highways and property boundaries.

        The Mill Creek Incident in SW Utah burned for weeks on a high elevation area. Winds came up, and overnight, the residents saw that the fire had burned 10 miles and was right on their doorstep. They were lucky that conditions died down and only a few buildings burned. If the fire had veered towards Cedar City, thousands of people would have to be evacuated and millions of dollars of businesses would be at the mercy of the elements. The Utah Governor declared that the Forest Service would have pay the full cost of State fire expenditures for that incident. Local residents were scoffed at by Forest Service fire personnel when they were concerned about the weeks of “Let-Burn”. They had no say as the situation developed.

        Also, the dedication of fire resources to “babysit” such “Let-Burn” fires takes scarce resources from other fires closer to people, property and infrastructure. None of the fire people want THAT issue to come to light.

        Once the fire escapes, all bets are off and fire crews have to figure out where they can re-organize and start to re-establish containment. Smoke mitigation is also out the window when the fire escapes. People get VERY sick and die from wildfire smoke (My Uncle passed away from the wildfire smoke of the Cedar Fire). Others get respiratory problems and sicknesses from constant, inescapable smoke. Businesses close and lose money, until the smoke clears. When I was in eastern Idaho in 2007, there were several days where the wildfire smoke from California had spread all the way to Yellowstone NP. Not just haze but, ugly dark brown smoke, blocking out the sun.

        Each “MMA” MUST have seperate NEPA because, under law, any government activity that substantially affects American citizens MUST be analyzed under NEPA. If NEPA was already in place, why would the Rogue River-Siskiyou NF attempt to bring its “Let-Burn” program under NEPA more than once in the last 5 years? Both times they have run into opposition with concerns that they cannot address the way they want.

        If such burns are only allowed in treated lands, the dangers and concerns could be significantly lessened, and damages reduced, as well as blending into AMR much better than in fuels-choked forests and dangerous terrain.

        This sounds a LOT like foresters defending their projects, saying they fully meet NEPA and complies with all applicable rules, laws and policies. At least timber projects actually go through the formal NEPA process, unlike “Let-Burn”.

        The problem with prescribed fire is that it takes a lot of on-the-ground preparation, the right fuel moistures and humidities, and enough of a workforce to complete the actual burning, when the time comes. Usually, temporary firefighters have either went back to school or have run out of appointment hours (1039 hours in a season), by the time all those conditions have been met. The other problem with prescribed fire is that if the Forest Service lights it and it escapes, they are liable for all impacts of the escape. This is especially critical if they are burning in the WUI.

        Fires should not be allowed to burns for months, as has happened in the past. Fire dollars are not saved by this Let-Burn program. Fire safety might be enhanced far a day or two by letting remote fires burn but, as each day goes by, the chances for injuries and even deaths continue to occur, day after day after day. Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months.

        Until someone sues to stop these dangerous and costly incidents, we’ll continue to have more escapes, more catastrophic escapes and more environmental damage. Surely there is a better way to deal with wildfires than pretending that they are “natural and beneficial” over tens of thousands of acres.

        Yes, I AM a big fan of prescribed fires, and I would like to see more careful and beneficial results. Sure, it’s harder to accomplish but, the results are always better for the forests, cheaper and more aesthetic.

        • Foto:
          You said:

          Until someone sues to stop these dangerous and costly incidents, we’ll continue to have more escapes, more catastrophic escapes and more environmental damage. “

          As you have pointed out in other posts, much of the short return fire return interval pine forest (e.g Ponderosa pine) now is in a condition where high intensity wild fire is likely. Lawsuits or no, there is like to be an increasing number of instances where suppression efforts cannot be successful even if resources were unlimited. The only appropriate management response will be to let some fires or portions of fires burn.

          You also point out that many people are uncomfortable and unhappy with suppression strategies that are anything less than full suppression. I agree that there needs to be a lot more dialog regarding the role of fire in North American ecosystems and the things that communities should be doing help reduce damage to cities and towns from wildfires.

          If I have time next week, perhaps I can share some of the insights from the 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review.


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