Federal Land Management:

Use of Stewardship Contracting Is Increasing, but Agencies Could Benefit from Better Data and Contracting Strategies

GAO-09-23: Published: Nov 13, 2008. Publicly Released: Nov 13, 2008.

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The Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have stewardship contracting authority, which allows the agencies to trade goods--such as timber--for services (e.g., thinning forests or rangelands) that the agencies would otherwise pay for with appropriated dollars, and to enter into stewardship contracts lasting up to 10 years. The authority is set to expire in 2013. GAO was asked to determine, among other things, (1) the extent to which the agencies are using stewardship contracting and (2) what successes and challenges the agencies have experienced in using it. In doing so, GAO assessed agency data, reviewed project files, and visited projects in numerous locations.

From fiscal years 2003 through 2007, the Forest Service and BLM awarded a combined total of 535 stewardship contracts, with the number increasing each year--from 38 in fiscal year 2003 to 172 in fiscal year 2007. However, for certain aspects of stewardship contracting, such as the acres involved or the value of the services exchanged for goods, reliable data were not available for the full 5-year fiscal period because neither agency has had a comprehensive database of its stewardship contracting activity since 2003. The agencies did not begin to maintain nationwide stewardship data until recently, primarily because of difficulties in adapting their systems to account for all aspects of stewardship contracting. Further, these data are not complete, and reside in myriad systems, not all of which interface with one another. These deficiencies keep the agencies and Congress from accurately assessing the costs and value of stewardship contracting. The agencies credit stewardship contracting with allowing them to accomplish more work--by allowing them to trade goods for services, thereby extending their budgets for thinning and other services--and spurring collaboration with members of the community and environmental groups. But stewardship contracting has its challenges too, including some resistance to its use (e.g., by contractors unfamiliar with it) and a paucity of markets for the small trees typically removed in stewardship projects. Also, although agency officials view long-term multiyear contracts as crucial to market development, these contracts can involve financial challenges. These contracts are attractive because they offer contractors and industry operators some certainty of supply, enabling them to obtain loans for equipment or processing facilities, which can then spur demand for materials resulting from stewardship projects. But such contracts can require a substantial up-front obligation of funds--to protect the contractor's investment if the government later cancels the contract--that may exceed the budget of a field unit (e.g., a national forest). Also, funding the annual work specified in the contract can force a unit to scale back its other programs if the value of the timber removed is not sufficient to pay for that work. Yet neither agency has developed a strategy for using such contracts, a step that could help field units determine which projects are appropriate for these long-term contracts and how they would be funded.

Status Legend:

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  • 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: To improve the agencies' use of stewardship contracting, and to ensure that the commitment of federal funds under long-term contracts is appropriately targeted, especially given the potential trade-offs involved, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should develop strategies for the use of long-term multiyear contracts that address, on a nationwide basis, the criteria agency officials can use to evaluate whether, in any given case, such a contract would be an appropriate mechanism to assist the agency in meeting its land management objectives. The strategy should address options for funding such contracts in a manner that considers trade-offs with respect to other land management activities and should be based on a systematic analysis of lessons learned from long-term projects already undertaken.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, BLM developed an informational bulletin disseminated to all Washington and field office officials titled "Strategy for the Use of Long-Term, Multi-year Stewardship Contracts". This strategy document incorporates criteria for the contracting officer to follow when determining the length of the contract after a stewardship project has been approved by the State Director. BLM also has identified a principal form of long-term contract to be used for larger and long-term projects that it asserts meets the needs of contractors and reduces the amount of government funds that must be obligated at the time a contract is awarded. Based on this action, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' use of stewardship contracting and to ensure ease of reporting and accurate accounting of activities undertaken through stewardship contracts and agreements, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior should implement improvements that will accurately account for products sold and services received under stewardship agreements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2014, the Forest Service issued a revision to its Renewable Resources Handbook containing direction on accounting for products sold and services received under stewardship agreements. As a result, we consider this recommendation closed.

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' use of stewardship contracting and to ensure ease of reporting and accurate accounting of activities undertaken through stewardship contracts and agreements, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior should implement improvements that will accurately account for products sold and services received under stewardship agreements.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to information provided by BLM officials, the agency has conducted a complete update of its Stewardship Contracting Information Database (SCID) to fulfill the requirement of GAO's recommendation. This database enhancement includes the capability to account for products sold and services received under stewardship agreements. As a result, we consider this recommendation closed.

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' use of stewardship contracting and to ensure ease of reporting and accurate accounting of activities undertaken through stewardship contracts and agreements, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior should implement, as part of their efforts to improve their stewardship contracting databases, improvements that will increase data interfaces among the various systems that contain stewardship data and will ensure accuracy and completeness in the data maintained.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to information provided by BLM officials, the agency has conducted a complete update of its Stewardship Contracting Information Database (SCID) to fulfill the requirement of GAO's recommendation. SCID, in turn, is a component of the Forest Resources Information Systems (FRIS) which provides bureau-wide management of timber sales, forest products sales, and stewardship projects and allows each of the modules to interface with each other and external applications, including BLM's Collections and Billing System. Given the extent of the data interfaces within these systems, we consider this recommendation closed.

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' use of stewardship contracting, and to ensure that the commitment of federal funds under long-term contracts is appropriately targeted, especially given the potential trade-offs involved, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should develop strategies for the use of long-term multiyear contracts that address, on a nationwide basis, the criteria agency officials can use to evaluate whether, in any given case, such a contract would be an appropriate mechanism to assist the agency in meeting its land management objectives. The strategy should address options for funding such contracts in a manner that considers trade-offs with respect to other land management activities and should be based on a systematic analysis of lessons learned from long-term projects already undertaken.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2014, the Forest Service issued a revision to its Renewable Resources Handbook containing criteria for officials to use in evaluating the usefulness of long-term contracts and determining whether such contracts are appropriate in different circumstances. As a result, we consider this recommendation closed.

    Recommendation: To improve the agencies' use of stewardship contracting and to ensure ease of reporting and accurate accounting of activities undertaken through stewardship contracts and agreements, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior should implement, as part of their efforts to improve their stewardship contracting databases, improvements that will increase data interfaces among the various systems that contain stewardship data and will ensure accuracy and completeness in the data maintained.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to Forest Service officials and supporting documents provided, the agency has increased data interfaces among its various systems that contain stewardship data, including the Timber Information Manager system, the Forest Activity Tracking System, and the Automated Timber Sale Accounting system. Based on these improvements, the agency is now able to provide more accurate and reliable data including the volume and value of products sold, the value of services received, and the value of products exchanged for services, by national forest and region.

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