Wildland Fires:

Forest Service and BLM Need Better Information and a Systematic Approach for Assessing the Risks of Environmental Effects

GAO-04-705: Published: Jun 24, 2004. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2004.

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Decades of fire suppression, as well as changing land management practices, have caused vegetation to accumulate and become altered on federal lands. Concerns about the effects of wildland fires have increased efforts to reduce fuels on federal lands. These efforts also have environmental effects. Congressional requesters asked GAO to (1) describe effects from fires on the environment, (2) assess the information gathered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on such effects, and (3) assess the agencies' approaches to environmental risks associated with reducing fuels.

Wildland fires can have dramatic effects on environmental resources and ecosystems, including production of large amounts of smoke, loss of trees, and erosion of soil into streams and lakes. However, fires can also benefit resources by recycling soil nutrients, renewing vegetation growth, and adding gravel to streams, which improves spawning habitat for fish. The 20 wildland fires that we surveyed burned over 158,000 acres of federal land and had complex, wide-ranging, and sometimes contradictory, effects on both individual resources, such as trees and streams, and ecosystems. For example, the short-term effects of the Missionary Ridge fire in Colorado that burned almost 50,000 acres of trees and other vegetation included increased debris and sediment that affected water quality in some areas. However, in other areas, officials said even dramatic changes to streams would not be detrimental in the long term. The Forest Service and BLM gather specific information on the environmental effects of individual wildland fires, such as soil erosion. The agencies do not, however, gather comprehensive data on the severity of wildland fire effects on broad landscapes and ecosystems--that is, large areas that may involve one or more fires. The agencies recently developed a monitoring framework to gather severity data for fires, but they have not yet implemented it. These data are needed to monitor the progress of the agencies' actions to restore and maintain resilient fire-adapted ecosystems, a goal of the National Fire Plan. The National Fire Plan directs the Forest Service and BLM to target their fuel reduction activities with the purpose of lowering the risk of environmental effects from wildland fires in areas that face the greatest losses. However, the agencies do not systematically assess the risks across landscapes that fires pose to different environmental resources or ecosystems or the risks of taking no action on fuel reduction projects. At the landscape level, the Forest Service and BLM do not have a formal framework for systematically assessing the risk of fire to resources and ecosystems, although some of the forests and BLM field offices have developed risk assessments on their own or in collaboration with regional, state, or local efforts. At the project level, while the agencies recognize the need to better analyze the risk of acting to reduce fuels versus not doing so, neither fire planning guidance nor National Environmental Policy Act guidance specify how to do this. Opportunities exist to clarify how the agencies should analyze the effects of not taking action to reduce fuels. The agencies can clarify interim guidance to implement the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, and the agencies can, in conjunction with Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), further develop the lessons learned from a CEQ demonstration program carried out in 2003. Without a risk-based approach, these agencies cannot target their fuel reduction projects across landscapes or make fully informed decisions about which effects and project alternatives are more desirable.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency disagreed with this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to clarify existing guidance, working with CEQ and taking into account any lessons learned from the CEQ demonstration program, on the assessment and documentation of the risks of environmental effects associated with not conducting fuel reduction projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: BLM has begun using the Forest Service-developed system called Ecosystem Management Decision Support (EMDS). EMDS is based on the three elements of a risk assessment: fuel hazard (vegetation condition), fire potential (climate, dryness, lightning, etc.), and values at risk. After adapting EMDS to better reflect vegetative conditions on BLM land, BLM used EMDS to allocate a portion of its fuel reduction funds to its state offices in FY 2008 and will use the system to allocate all of its FY 2009 funds. BLM has also coordinated its use of EMDS with the Forest Service and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC). Based on BLM's use of the risk-based EMDS system to allocate funds, and its commitment to developing this program in coordination with the Forest Service and WFLC, we believe that the recommendation is implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to develop and issue guidance, in consultation with experts inside and outside the agencies, that formalizes a framework for systematically assessing landscape-level risks to ecosystems from wildland fires.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Beginning in 2007, the Forest Service adapted its Ecosystem Management Decision Support (EMDS) system to encompass the three elements of a risk assessment: fuel hazard (vegetation condition), fire potential (climate, dryness, lightning, etc.), and values at risk. In 2007, the Forest Service used this system to allocate fuel reduction funds from the Washington office to its regional offices; in 2008, the Forest Service again allocated funds to the regions using EMDS, and requested that the regions use it to allocate funds to national forests. According to Forest Service officials, the agency is further working to develop a tool that will allow forests to prioritize their projects at the landscape level by enabling them to better assess the likelihood of fire occurring in particular locations. The Forest Service has coordinated its development and use of the EMDS system with BLM and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC). Based on the Forest Service's use of the risk-based EMDS system to allocate funds, and its commitment to developing this program in coordination with BLM and WFLC, we believe that the recommendation is implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to develop and issue guidance, in consultation with experts inside and outside the agencies, that formalizes a framework for systematically assessing landscape-level risks to ecosystems from wildland fires.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Wildland Fire Leadership Council approved a monitoring plan for burn severity. Part of that recommendation was use of multiple-frame (year) remote sensing data to distinguish among levels of burn severity (low, medium, and high).

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to develop a monitoring plan to implement the agencies' framework approved in May 2004 and include a pilot program for testing on Forest Service and BLM lands the applicability of, and resource needs associated with, the burn severity mapping and data tool developed by the National Park Service.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Wildland Fire Leadership Council approved a monitoring plan for burn severity. Part of that recommendation was use of multiple-frame (year) remote sensing data to distinguish among levels of burn severity (low, medium, and high).

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to develop a monitoring plan to implement the agencies' framework approved in May 2004 and include a pilot program for testing on Forest Service and BLM lands the applicability of, and resource needs associated with, the burn severity mapping and data tool developed by the National Park Service.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency disagreed with this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to clarify existing guidance, working with CEQ and taking into account any lessons learned from the CEQ demonstration program, on the assessment and documentation of the risks of environmental effects associated with not conducting fuel reduction projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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