Watchdog: Forest Service mismanaging forest fire risk

“The Forest Service also seemed to be guilty of double and sometimes triple-counting the amount of land it treated without making that clear in reports to Congress.”


According to the Aug. 16 report, the inspector general said the Forest Service has no consistent process for identifying where wildfire fuel should be removed, doesn’t use science-based risk assessment to pick projects and doesn’t accurately report data on the work it does.

As forest fires burn in western states, it’s clear that the Forest Service isn’t making the most of its limited budget to protect against wildfires, the report states. Just five of the 154 national forests had risk-assessment processes being developed or in place to figure out how to prioritize projects.

I’ve often suspected that this was done! In some areas, the USFS appears to be a “rogue” Agency, hiding the bad stuff that they do. No wonder the eco-groups don’t trust the Forest Service, eh?

24 thoughts on “Watchdog: Forest Service mismanaging forest fire risk”

  1. The issue is far bigger than just managing wildfires hazards and involves most all forest land managing agencies and corporations. Our inventory processes are completely inadequate to properly manage our remaining forested lands, no matter who is responsible. Back in 1964, I presented a paper at the Mid-West Wildlife Conference, demonstrating a process to identify the individual forest communities and collect data required to prioritize treatment needs. We sampled each community to record current conditions and needs. This was done for an entire 200,000 acre Ranger District. Data was recorded so it could be retrieved for future planning. The idea was to re-visit each community every 10 years to refine the data and expand our knowledge. It turned out that the average community was about 35 acres in size. Today’s technology would certainly allow for a much more efficient process however, there is no substitute for on-the-ground observation and examination by a professional scientist to provide sound data. Unfortunately, today’s focus remains on what we can take from the forests and not the needs of the individual forest communities to maintain or improve health and provide diversity. If the science of forestry does not make significant changes, and soon, we will be faced with same issues that resulted in the collapse and failure of numerous societies from the past. Health and diversity are far more important to preventing catastrophic events within our valuable forest communities!

    • So, you seem to be in favor of more “analysis paralysis”? And, how can more forest inventory be done, without “boots on the ground”? The Forest Service has plenty of money but, they choose to spend it on wildfires. They hire “grunts”, right off the street, into important positions. They are more concerned with diversity, rather than experience. They are WAY too top-heavy, and alienating potential future employees.

      How many temporary employees could do forest inventory work? How many could be certified timber cruisers? How many actually know their tree species, before hiring? How many know how to use GPS equipment or even know how to use maps and compass? It is quite sad that their workforce is so woefully inept.

      We need permanent seasonal “Super Technicians”, who have at least 5 years of direct experience. We need Congress to specifically fund those positions. We need to reduce temporary appointments to 4 months, to force the Forest Service to have an able and motivated workforce. We need to stop blaming wildfires for funding issues. It’s a cop-out!!! The USFS is broken, and needs a major overhaul. Money is not an issue for Congress. Just make it happen. We also need to have current Forest Service employees to stand up and criticize the injustice dished out to temporary employees.

      • The likely hood that a wildfire actually burns into a fuel reduction treatment within the time period that it is still effective in reducing fire severity is pretty low. Sure it would be amazing if congress pulled it together and reinstated a budget that would allow the USFS to effectively implement its designated mission but given the current political climate and gridlock in Washington that is also pretty unlikely. I don’t think that being a little more careful with how we spend our current fuels budget will lead to “analysis paralysis”. The way that timber and fuels projects are currently laid out is a joke. A line office draws a circle on a map and then the ID team spends 5 years writing up NEPA for that area. We could very easily utilize the wealth of proven decision support tools and remotely sensed data to do a lot better job of analyzing risk and and prioritizing treatments to actually address that risk as well as the other resource objectives the agency is tasked with meeting.

        • In the Sierra Nevada, Indian-managed lands that pioneers found were quite resilient to wildfires. It takes an initial fuels reduction project, and then a program of prescribed fires to maintain their effectiveness. Instead, some people want to embrace a “pre-human” landscape, in a world dominated by people, letting “Whatever Happens”, happen. Is that any way to fulfill the Forest Service mission?

          • I think you may be misunderstanding me, I am not advocating for the USFS to walk away and let “what ever happens”. My interpretation of the report is that this is 2016 and that the USFS can do a lot better job at landscape planing, especially concerning fuels treatments. The tools are there and the analysis isn’t that hard or time consuming to make sure that we are spending money on fuels projects that make sense and provide the greatest benefit for the cost.

            • How can the work get done with, really, only 4 months of effective work each year, from employees implementing on-the-ground work? With new inexperienced crew members, every year, training takes up a huge amount of time from the actual work at hand. Some of that training ends up being worthless, as there is always some attrition from those new crew members, who thought such a job would be “fun”. Additionally, some experienced crew members become jaded, and move on to other jobs or careers. No one in the Forest Service is addressing these problems, accepting the sub-standard work that does get done as a part of “doing business”.

              Meanwhile, we get further and further behind, with more drought, bark beetles and firestorms.

              • I understand you point about the lack of incentives for /need for retention of technician level employees but the article you posted (full OIG report: was about the lack of proper prioritization and accounting in fuels reduction projects.

                Quote from the report:
                “FS Units Did Not Document Rationale Behind Project Selections

                We found that FS units we reviewed generally did not document the rationale for selecting and completing individual hazardous fuels reduction projects. For instance, we found that none of the six ranger districts we visited documented why they implemented one hazardous fuels reduction project in the WUI over a different hazardous fuels reduction treatment in the WUI. To determine why individual treatments were selected over others, we relied on interviews with staff, some of whom were not working in that district at the time of the projects in question (which were over 2 years old).

                Documenting the decision-making process and rationale for the selection of these high-risk areas over others, or a district’s inability to complete a project in a high-risk area, would supply transparency during formal reviews of project selections. Along with the development of the risk assessments, documenting the rationale for selecting projects would help ensure that the highest priority hazardous fuels reduction projects are completed first.”

                I think this is really important especially when the agency is tasked to meet additional objectives around ecosystem services, manage increasing WUI areas and generally do more with less. I would like to see the recommendations in the report turn into real management directives for how forest planning should be done on a project to project basis and not just requiring a FSIM generated regional hazard map be put out every X number of years.

                • Another reason for the Forest Service to let the public into the part of the process that decides where to propose a project. That should lead to better discussion and documentation of rationales, and maybe to better “institutional memory” by including the local public in the institution.

  2. Let’s be honest; our federal land management agencies are politically driven. In other words politician’s set the direction and the direction changes with political swings. To some extent (maybe to a great extent), those swings are driven by those who scream loudest.

    Add to that the simple fact that far too few agency personnel stay in a given place long enough to thoroughly know the forest and the communities in and around the forest.

    I’ve seen that locally; e.g. no one on the local forest seems to know anything about an outside-the-box project done some 30-35 years ago; mention this project to today’s staff and you’ll get blank stares. Therefore, what did anyone learn from that project? Similarly, the silviculturist who did a recent outside-the-box project has moved on and, 20 years from now, will anything have been learned; will anyone be around to remember this project? Will there be coherent records still in existence for someone to examine and learn from?

    I’d agree that these agencies need “super technician’s” as these are the people who are more apt to stay on the forest for a long period of time. With that longevity, these are the people who will more thoroughly know and understand the forest and the local communities these forests are supposed to support. [I’d liken these people to the office secretary; they know the people and the daily ins and outs.]

  3. Question. What is the link to The Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General report? Google search returns the Washington Examiner as the source of the story. Then there are echoes of the Washington Examiner. What did the OIG really say?

  4. You missed my main point. I agree agencies like the Forest Service are far to top heavy, and centralize specialization has only added to the problem. I also agree that scientists are over whelmed with preparation of reports and documents that add nothing to the improvement of on-the-ground management. My point is we must improve our knowledge of the site specific conditions if we are to properly manage our valuable remaining forests. We need our scientists in the field not setting behind a desk 75% of the time. Educated scientists need to observe and prepare sound management prescriptions for the individual communities! We can train technicians to fill out the paper work!

    • Good luck getting a GS-12 “scientist” to go out into the field to do stand exams, for 40 hours per week! I did stand exams in South Carolina, doing just that, needing to know how to identify 40 hardwood trees, and 20 different oak species. Do such “scientists” know about logging methods and mitigation measures? Do they even know how to read a map and use a compass?

      I do agree that site specific conditions are paramount in deciding what to do with a very specific piece of land. However, good luck finding any consistency in finding people to do those kinds of jobs for peanuts and coffee mugs. for 6 months out of every year. The Forest Service simply won’t make things right, regarding forestry technicians.

  5. You certainly have a low opinion of trained foresters. The Forest Service has a large group of GS 5,7, and 9 trained scientists that spent most of their time in the office writing reports and documents to justify treatments based on very limited knowledge of the project site. No wonder planning is so in-adequate and money is spent on sites that are not top priority!

    • Actually, there are very few 7’s, and even less of them are permanent. Technicians have a ceiling at the 7 level, as there are so very few GS-8 jobs, which are needed to reach the “time in grade” requirements, to get a GS-9. Since the rules now say that you cannot go from 5 to 7 to 9, in the Technician Series, that has all-but-eliminated the possibility of Techs reaching the coveted GS-9 level. There used to be a pathway in Timber Sale Administration but, the certification process is now out of reach to Techs. Most people laying out timber projects are permanent GS-9 professional series Foresters.

      Also, most foresters aren’t usually considered to be “scientists”. If you consider data collection to be a scientist’s job, then that would make me a “scientist”, too! Stand exams in South Carolina were quite challenging, with me having to dredge up 30 year old Dendro knowledge.

      Additionally, there is no career ladder for Ologists. Most of them cannot “work their way up”, as you just don’t see many open permanent positions. You don’t see many temporary Ologist positions, either.

    • I was replying to Brian’s call for getting “scientists” out in the woods, to get fuels-related work done. There just isn’t a pool of “scientists” in the offices who don’t go out in the field. Roy, if you feel that a lack of a trained workforce is “outdated and meaningless”, then you are way out of touch.

      In the Sierra Nevada, burning goals are WAY down, due to a lack of fuels work (thinning). It’s not likely to get much better, in any timeframe. The Forest Service just doesn’t want to light prescribed fires without thinning, first.

      • yeah, but no. Some of your points are valid, but prescribed burning isn’t limited by lack of commercial thinning. Even when thinning happens (in the Sierra Nevada, where I work) burning often doesn’t happen, for a variety of reasons. Fire crews unavailable in the winter, small windows of suitable conditions to meet prescriptions (air quality, too windy, too wet, too dry), the risk and complexity of burning to meet multiple resource/ safety concerns, burn plans not ready in time, funding, etc etc.

        • Agreed but, how much untreated forest gets a prescribed burn? I’d guess less than 5% of their accomplishments to date. Within that 5% is some areas of old growth, with no understory, and a carpet of bearclover. Actually, that condition is really what we want in much of the Sierra Nevada, where ‘unplanned ignitions’ might be able to burn with less risk and worry. With bark beetles and wildfires, such thinning treatments will be pushed back, further and further. We really need a Regional CatEx to deal with salvage treatments, to keep us more focused on thinning.

  6. You might be interested to know that this blog post led to this article in the Missoulian:

    Note that the Forest Service blames “limited resources,” not lawsuits. It added that the agency hasn’t conducted any formal review of its hazardous fuels program in years due to budget cuts and travel restrictions. “Instead (it) relies on improved telecommunication technology and a high level of trust in the Forest Service units’ decision-making abilities.”

    • “In their public statements, the Forest Service would have us think that fewer acres burned means we’ve been more effective,” Stahl said. “But every Forest Service scientist would agree we need more acres burned, not fewer. And if the goal is fewer homes burning, then focusing on acres burned is irrelevant. Fuel treatments is irrelevant. If you want to keep homes from burning, make sure they’re built so they’re not flammable.”

      Ignoring burn intensity is not something we should be doing, as well. (At least, in areas with unnatural fuels build-ups, where fuels projects could be quite beneficial)

      • This comment to the newspaper article seems quite applicable:

        “I think the report highlights a really important challenge the USFS is facing. How as an agency do they keep up to date with the newest science and methodologies for landscape planning when they don’t have the resources or hiring authority to get quality people into those roles and their current staff is overburden with the unnecessarily laborious NEPA process?
        Getting the necessary work done is further complicated by groups like Andy Stalhs (why is he relevant to this article?) that constantly champion this no management ideology. Fuels treatments are implemented with three goals in mind: 1.) if a fire burns through that treatment it will reduce the severity of that fire so that there are seed trees and living forest structure remaining post burn 2.) create safer fuel conditions so that wildland firefighters can implement larger prescribed fires with less risk of escape and safer conditions for firefighters, 3.) strategically placed treatments (e.g along roads and mountain ridges) so that back burns can be lit to guide and manage natural occurring wildfire starts. Fuel treatments are not irrelevant, the agency just needs to catch up with science and use the tested wildfire planning tools that are readily available so they can do a better job of planning where those treatments should be implemented. “

  7. Once the FS came up with a goal of managing Sierra Nevada forests to meet various objectives, including more thinning around oaks, heterogeneity of density and diversity, protecting soils, hydrology, cultural sites, rare species, and adjacent homes, climate change threw a curveball into the mix. At what density will forests be resilient under these changing conditions? How should/ can the FS respond to the bugkill? Should we harvest or reforest burned landscapes?

    • Thinning from below is clearly the way to go but, the current pace and scale cannot meet what is needed, due to funding and a lack of expertise in timber projects. It is looking, more and more, that ‘Whatever Happens’ will be the default management scheme. Congress has work to do but, nothing will result. It is too late to save important major portions of the Sierra Nevada National Forests.


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