Forest Restoration:

Adjusting Agencies' Information-Sharing Strategies Could Benefit Landscape-Scale Projects

GAO-15-398: Published: Apr 9, 2015. Publicly Released: May 11, 2015.

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What GAO Found

Agencies GAO reviewed—the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and National Park Service (NPS) in the Department of the Interior—reported conducting 34 landscape-scale forest restoration projects (defined by GAO as projects larger than 50,000 acres with a focus on forests) from 2004 through 2014. The Forest Service reported conducting 24 of the 34 projects; BLM, 8; and NPS, 2. FWS reported no landscape-scale projects, and BIA officials stated that BIA supports but does not collect information on tribal landscape restoration projects. Agency officials said they determined the scope of individual projects, such as project area, based on factors unique to each project, such as the ecological composition of the land.

The three agencies conducting landscape-scale forest restoration projects generally track the progress of individual projects by collecting information on ongoing activities such as acres where vegetation that can fuel wildland fires was reduced, and miles of stream improved or restored. No agency has undertaken a systematic assessment of the results of its landscape-scale restoration activities—that is, the extent to which the projects have achieved their restoration objectives—largely because most of the projects were recently begun, and their results will not be known for years. However, all project managers GAO spoke with were conducting or planning to conduct efforts to collect information on long-term results, and some project managers noted that they have already observed some positive effects, such as an enhanced ability to suppress wildfires.

Agency officials and stakeholders stated that to date they had experienced a variety of successes and challenges, and each agency has mechanisms to share information among projects. Successes included increasing the pace and scale of restoration and achieving efficiencies in project costs and timelines, and challenges included responding to litigation and sustaining stakeholder participation over time. Agencies share information on restoration through mechanisms such as webinars and websites on project management. However, many project managers and stakeholders told GAO that managers would benefit from additional information sharing, such as lessons learned from successes and challenges experienced on other projects. Several managers also said that existing national information-sharing mechanisms were not always the most useful for their specific information needs. GAO has reported on the importance of information sharing to achieve agency objectives and sustain collaboration. Agency officials stated that they have not assessed the information needs of project managers. By taking steps to identify the information needs of project managers and the mechanisms most useful for sharing information, the agencies may enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of landscape-scale projects.

Agency officials and project managers told GAO they are taking steps aimed at increasing the efficiency of their National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes for landscape-scale projects by updating agency NEPA guidance and implementing and assessing a variety of approaches aimed at efficiency. However, it is too early to assess the effects of these approaches because projects are generally working under previous NEPA decisions while developing new NEPA analyses using these approaches.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture and BIA, BLM, FWS, and NPS within the Department of the Interior have increasingly promoted landscape-scale forest restoration as a way to improve forest health. Through landscape-scale projects, agencies can treat tens or hundreds of thousands of acres, in contrast to projects commonly of under 1,000 acres. Such projects must comply with NEPA by assessing the effects of major federal actions that significantly affect the environment.

GAO was asked to examine federal landscape-scale forest restoration efforts. This report examines (1) the number of such projects the agencies have conducted and how they are scoped; (2) the actions taken by agencies to track the projects' progress; (3) successes and challenges experienced by agencies; and (4) steps taken by agencies to help increase NEPA efficiency for such projects. GAO reviewed agency guidance and documentation related to landscape-scale forest restoration and NEPA processes; examined the number of landscape-scale projects conducted from 2004-2014; and interviewed managers of 20 projects, as well as numerous stakeholders, about their efforts.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the agencies take steps to identify project managers' information needs and the most effective and efficient information-sharing mechanisms, and adjust their information-sharing strategies as appropriate. The agencies generally agreed with GAO's findings and recommendations.

For more information, contact Anne-Marie Fennell at (202) 512-3841 or fennella@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, the Forest Service worked closely with Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program partners at the local, regional, and national levels to identify information needs and improve information sharing. For example,the Forest Service conducted informal interviews with a sample of CFLR Coordinators to understand their information needs and obtain their ideas for improving information sharing. The key trends and findings were then synthesized in a report and shared with the CFLR Steering Committee, leading to a conference call in November 2015 to discuss opportunities to improve information sharing in fiscal year 2016. Next steps include carrying out project site visits and providing sharing opportunities at a national Collaborative Restoration Workshop in April 2016. The Forest Service also created a survey instrument that can be used to obtain additional project coordinator input in fiscal year 2016.

    Recommendation: To better position project managers within and across agencies to take advantage of the collective knowledge and expertise gained through project implementation, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Chief of the Forest Service and the Directors of BLM and NPS, respectively, to take steps to identify the information needs of their project managers and the most effective and efficient mechanisms for sharing that information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, BLM developed and administered a survey to assess the information needs of landscape-scale forest restoration project managers in New Mexico and Oregon. The survey identified (1) successful strategies that project managers have used to implement landscape-scale forest restoration projects; (2) lessons learned from project design and implementation; and (3) suggestions on methods that would be effective communicating this information to other managers and project leads. Results from the survey were reported in a document entitled, Report on Information Sharing Strategies to Enhance the BLM' s Implementation of Landscape Scale Forest Restoration and distributed to relevant personnel in February 2016. In 2015, NPS began participating in restoration collaboratives to share information and expertise with multiple federal, state, and local partners. Part of the collaborative process is to develop funding proposals that require clearly defined outcomes, objectives, and metrics, thus ensuring that project managers' information needs are identified. This process has ensured that information gaps are identified and mechanisms for sharing information are established at the project level.

    Recommendation: To better position project managers within and across agencies to take advantage of the collective knowledge and expertise gained through project implementation, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Chief of the Forest Service and the Directors of BLM and NPS, respectively, to take steps to identify the information needs of their project managers and the most effective and efficient mechanisms for sharing that information.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, the Forest Service worked closely with Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program partners at the local, regional, and national levels to implement effective information-sharing strategies or improve existing ones. For example, the Forest Service is planning a National Collaborative Restoration Workshop for April 2016 to provide restoration practitioners--both Forest Service and partners--with an opportunity to learn, share, and connect to increase their collective capacity to create, maintain, and enhance resilient landscapes and communities. The Forest Service expects approximately 300 participants. In addition, the Forest Service will conduct a new round of CFLR site visits in the spring and summer of 2016. The CFLR program is currently working with headquarters staff, Regional Coordinators, and external partners to identify critical locations for face-to-face visits to understand project progress, identify challenges, and share recommendations. A report synthesizing trends and findings will be discussed and shared with all 23 CFLR projects and made publically available as well. The plan is to visit 4 to 6 projects in fiscal year 2016 and an additional 4 to 6 projects in fiscal year 2017. The Forest Service also developed a new Sharepoint site for the Treatment for Restoration Economic Analysis Tool, including discussion boards and an FAQ section which allows projects to ask questions to one another, along with the headquarters team, and for everyone to benefit from the responses.

    Recommendation: To better position project managers within and across agencies to take advantage of the collective knowledge and expertise gained through project implementation, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Chief of the Forest Service and the Directors of BLM and NPS, respectively, to, as appropriate, make adjustments to their information-sharing strategies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, BLM first surveyed project managers and then, in March 2016, produced a report entitled Adjustments Made Based on Information Sharing Strategies in which the agency identified a number of specific changes and improvements that could be made to three of its existing information sharing platforms. The selected platforms and improvements included (1) enhancing the BLM Forest and Woodlands website to include landscape-scale restoration-specific information such as contracting examples and landscape restoration lessons-learned, (2) increasing communication by adding a landscape-scale restoration discussion to the monthly forestry leads conference call, and (3) adding lessons-learned and success stories sessions to its annual forestry leads three-day meeting. In 2015, NPS increased its access to information on landscape scale projects by participating in the Department of the Interior Wildland Fire Resilient Landscapes Program. Under the program, NPS is leading two collaboratives composed of a variety of agencies, organizations, and tribes. Through this collaborative program, NPS can now obtain and share information through mechanisms such as monthly conference calls, public meetings, annual two-day "all hands" meetings, and annual reports produced by the collaborative.

    Recommendation: To better position project managers within and across agencies to take advantage of the collective knowledge and expertise gained through project implementation, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Chief of the Forest Service and the Directors of BLM and NPS, respectively, to, as appropriate, make adjustments to their information-sharing strategies.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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