Federal Land Management:

Additional Guidance on Community Involvement Could Enhance Effectiveness of Stewardship Contracting

GAO-04-652: Published: Jun 14, 2004. Publicly Released: Jun 14, 2004.

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In their efforts to reduce hazardous fuels and the risk of wildfire on the nation's public lands, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) expect that stewardship contracting will play a major role. Stewardship contracting involves the use of contracting authorities--such as the exchange of goods for services--first authorized in 1998 and intended to help the agencies achieve land management goals that meet community needs. GAO was asked, among other things, to determine (1) the contracting and financial controls the agencies use to ensure accountability in managing stewardship contracting projects and (2) the steps the agencies have taken to involve communities in the projects.

Although the Forest Service provided limited initial guidance on establishing contracting and financial controls, the eight stewardship projects GAO visited had incorporated such controls. (BLM was first granted stewardship authority in 2003 and had no projects under way at the time of GAO's review.) The projects generally used pre- and post-award controls, such as reviews of contractor bids using preestablished criteria, and performance and payment bonds to ensure completion of required activities. GAO's review of selected financial controls at the projects we visited showed that they appeared to have procedures in place to account for retained receipts, including tracking funds received and expended, and had incorporated procedures designed to ensure the completion of specific work tasks before contractors were paid. Both the Forest Service and BLM issued guidance in January 2004 containing such controls for future projects. The Forest Service initially provided minimal guidance on soliciting and incorporating public involvement in stewardship contracting projects and, as a result, the type and extent of efforts to involve communities varied considerably among the projects GAO reviewed. However, managers who did not incorporate public input may have missed valuable opportunities to strengthen their projects. For example, one project manager said that public involvement led to more stringent criteria for protecting water quality, and another reported that public involvement improved agency access to public lands needing fuel reduction. Although most managers GAO spoke with said they wanted additional guidance on public involvement, the Forest Service's recently issued stewardship contracting handbook does not contain specific guidance for obtaining community input--and BLM's recent guidance is similarly lacking. Without such guidance, each project manager must independently determine the type and extent of community involvement to solicit and then develop and implement community involvement procedures--an inefficient process that could lead to variation in community involvement across stewardship contracting projects in both agencies.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: BLM has conducted several national training sessions on stewardship contracting, each including a module on effective collaboration. In addition, BLM supplemented its guidance on stewardship contracting in December 2005, including a brief discussion of community involvement and collaboration. However, BLM's guidance does not provide substantial information that could be used by stewardship project officers as they seek to determine appropriate levels and forms of community involvement, and therefore this recommendation remains open.

    Recommendation: To enhance the ability of stewardship contracting projects to meet local needs and improve public trust in the agencies, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the agencies to issue additional guidance on community involvement. Such guidance should identify, and encourage the use of, best practices in seeking and incorporating community input, and establish minimum requirements for seeking community involvement on each stewardship contracting project.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service's primary stewardship contracting official reported that the agency has taken the following steps to address GAO's recommendation: (1) the Forest Service has added collaboration resources to its stewardship contracting Web page, including lessons learned from previous stewardship projects and frequently asked questions on collaboration; (2) the Forest Service has contracted with the Pinchot Institute to provide five 1-day training sessions on collaboration in stewardship contracting--two have taken place, and three more are scheduled for this fiscal year; and (3) the Forest Service is currently preparing additional guidance clarifying the role of collaboration in developing and implementing stewardship projects. On December 12, 2005, this guidance was added to Forest Service Handbook 2409.19, Chapter 60. Because the guidance appears to provide sufficient direction in community involvement, and because the Forest Service has collected information on lessons learned and has arranged for training on community involvement, this recommendation is closed.

    Recommendation: To enhance the ability of stewardship contracting projects to meet local needs and improve public trust in the agencies, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the agencies to issue additional guidance on community involvement. Such guidance should identify, and encourage the use of, best practices in seeking and incorporating community input, and establish minimum requirements for seeking community involvement on each stewardship contracting project.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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