Wildland Fire Rehabilitation and Restoration:

Forest Service and BLM Could Benefit from Improved Information on Status of Needed Work

GAO-06-670: Published: Jun 30, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2006.

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Since 2001, Congress and federal agencies, including the Forest Service and Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), have recognized the importance of rehabilitating and restoring lands unlikely to recover on their own after wildland fires. However, while funding has increased for fire prevention, suppression, and first-year emergency stabilization, it has decreased for rehabilitation (work up to 3 years after fires) and restoration (work beyond the first 3 years). GAO was asked (1) how the Forest Service and BLM plan postfire rehabilitation and restoration projects, (2) how much needed rehabilitation and restoration work they have completed for recent wildland fires, and (3) what challenges the agencies face in addressing their needs.

The Forest Service and BLM use similar procedures to identify rehabilitation and restoration needs, but differ in how they plan and fund related projects. Given the variety of ecosystems they manage, Forest Service field staff have the discretion to locally prioritize projects, and the agency addresses them through various programs with appropriations from multiple accounts. In contrast, BLM has a standard process for planning needed rehabilitation projects and, through a single account, funds projects for up to 3 years after fires. For restoration projects--that is, work needed beyond 3 years after a fire--BLM requires them to be addressed through other programs such as rangeland management. With available information, it is not possible to reliably determine how much needed rehabilitation and restoration work has been completed for recent Forest Service and BLM fires. The Forest Service does not know how much work has been completed because it does not collect nationwide data. BLM reported that, according to its data, it has completed most of its rehabilitation work, but the agency does not collect data on postfire restoration work, which is done through other programs. GAO surveyed Forest Service and BLM officials to determine how much needed work has been completed, but the information provided in the survey was not sufficiently reliable to report. Forest Service and BLM officials face different challenges to addressing their rehabilitation and restoration needs. Forest Service officials cited factors such as competing priorities within constrained budgets and controversy over certain activities. Agency officials said that controversy over harvesting burned timber can be exacerbated by the limited scientific research available to guide such decisions. BLM officials cited challenges to achieving long-term success when seeding burned areas. The agency is taking several steps to improve success rates.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help Congress and the Forest Service make more informed funding decisions, and to help the Forest Service better address its high-priority postfire rehabilitation and restoration needs, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Forest Service to track and report to Congress all high-priority rehabilitation and restoration work needed and accomplished, regardless of funding source.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help Congress and the Forest Service make more informed funding decisions, and to help the Forest Service better address its high-priority postfire rehabilitation and restoration needs, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Forest Service to conduct additional research on the beneficial and harmful effects of postfire projects, including but not limited to, postfire timber harvests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that long-term postfire restoration needs are addressed on BLM lands, the Secretary of the Interior should direct BLM to address postfire restoration needs that persist more than 3 years after a fire by establishing a procedure to transfer any incomplete work--including monitoring--from the rehabilitation program to other ongoing programs, and by tracking and reporting to Congress the status of all needed and completed postfire restoration work in those programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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