Wildland Fires:

Better Information Needed on Effectiveness of Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation Treatments

GAO-03-430: Published: Apr 4, 2003. Publicly Released: May 7, 2003.

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Wildfires burn millions of acres annually. Most burnt land can recover naturally, but a small percentage needs short-term emergency treatment to stabilize burnt land that threatens public safety, property, or ecosystems or longer-term treatments to rehabilitate land unlikely to recover naturally. The Department of the Interior (Interior) and the Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Forest Service--the two departments that manage most federal land--spend millions of dollars annually on such treatments. GAO was asked to (1) describe the two departments' processes for implementing their programs, (2) identify the costs and types of treatments implemented, and (3) determine whether these treatments are effective.

Both Interior and USDA's Forest Service use multidisciplinary teams of experts, such as ecologists and soil scientists, to assess damage and potential risks burnt land poses and to develop emergency stabilization and rehabilitation plans that identify needed treatments to reduce or eliminate those risks. The two departments differ in how they manage their programs, however. Interior uses a single process to assess damage and identify treatments for short-term emergency stabilization and longer-term rehabilitation, while USDA's Forest Service uses different processes for each of these two treatment types. The two departments recognize these differences and recently agreed to work toward standardizing certain aspects of their programs, such as definitions and time frames. Following the 2000 and 2001 fires, the Forest Service obligated $192 million and Interior $118 million for 421 emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatment plans GAO reviewed. Treatments included seeding; fencing; installing soil erosion barriers such as straw bundles, or wattles; and road or trail work. Most of Interior's land--managed by the Bureau of Land Management--consists of rangeland. Thus, the bureau primarily seeded native grasses to retain soils and forage for cattle and wildlife and fenced to prevent grazing. Forest Service land is often steeply sloped and includes watersheds used for drinking water and timber. The Forest Service primarily seeded fast-growing grasses and built soil erosion barriers for emergency stabilization, and worked on roads, trails and reforested for rehabilitation. Neither the departments nor GAO could determine whether emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatments were achieving their intended results. The departments require that treatments be monitored, but they do not specify how and the type of data to collect or analyze for determining effectiveness. The departments have stressed the need to systematically collect and share monitoring data for treatment decisions. Yet neither has developed a national interagency system to do so. Therefore, the nature and extent of data collection, analysis, and sharing vary widely. The departments recognize that they need better information on treatment effectiveness. However, they have not yet committed to this effort.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • 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: In order to better ensure that funds for emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatments on burnt lands are used as effectively as possible, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should require the heads of their respective land management agencies to develop an interagency system for collecting, storing, analyzing, and disseminating information on monitoring results for use in management decisions

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Interior and USDA Forest Service established a National Fire Plan Operations and Reporting System (NFPORS) to assist staff in managing and reporting accomplishments for work conducted under the National Fire Plan, which will be used as a repository for collecting, storing, analyzing, and disseminating information on monitoring results. As of August 2007, Interior is consolidating several data storage systems to supply the required monitoring data for NFPORS. However, Interior has no plans for analyzing or disseminating monitoring results for use in management decisions.

    Recommendation: In order to better ensure that funds for emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatments on burnt lands are used as effectively as possible, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should require the heads of their respective land management agencies to specify the type and extent of monitoring data that local land units are to collect and methods for collecting these data.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2007, the Department of the Interior and USDA Forest Service finalized standardized protocols for monitoring emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatments, including a standardized protocol for (1) the type and extent of monitoring data collected and (2) methods to collect these data.

    Recommendation: In order to better ensure that funds for emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatments on burnt lands are used as effectively as possible, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should require the heads of their respective land management agencies to specify the type and extent of monitoring data that local land units are to collect and methods for collecting these data.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2007, the Department of the Interior and USDA Forest Service finalized standardized protocols for monitoring emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatments, including a standardized protocol for (1) the type and extent of monitoring data collected and (2) methods to collect these data.

    Recommendation: In order to better ensure that funds for emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatments on burnt lands are used as effectively as possible, the Secretaries of Agriculture and of the Interior should require the heads of their respective land management agencies to develop an interagency system for collecting, storing, analyzing, and disseminating information on monitoring results for use in management decisions

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of the Interior and USDA Forest Service established a National Fire Plan Operations and Reporting System (NFPORS) to assist staff in managing and reporting accomplishments for work conducted under the National Fire Plan, which will be used as a repository for collecting, storing, analyzing, and disseminating information on monitoring results. As of August 2007, the Forest Service is consolidating several data storage systems to supply the required Forest Service monitoring data for NFPORS. However, the Forest Service has no plans for analyzing or disseminating monitoring results for use in management decisions.

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