Forest Service:

Proposed Regulations Adequately Address Some, but Not All, Key Elements of Forest Planning

RCED-00-256: Published: Sep 29, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 29, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Forest Service's forest plan, focusing on the extent to which the Forest Service's proposed regulations: (1) make clear the agency's mission priorities before beginning the process of revising a forest plan; (2) link forest plans to agencywide goals, objectives, and strategies; and (3) hold the forests more accountable for key elements of forest planning.

GAO noted that: (1) a lack of clear direction on how to resolve conflicts among competing uses on national forest lands has contributed significantly to inefficiency and waste in the Forest Service's development and implementation of forest plans; (2) to address this deficiency, the agency's 1999 proposed planning regulations would make ecological sustainability, rather than economic or social sustainability, the agency's top priority, in order to provide a sustainable flow of products, services, and other values from national forests; (3) elevating the maintenance or restoration of ecological systems over other uses on the national forests is consistent with the agency's evolving mission, which now favors resource protection over production; (4) however, the priority assigned to ecological sustainability is not driven by the statutory authorities specific to the management of the national forests; (5) rather, it has evolved over many years, responding, in part, to the requirements in environmental laws and their implementing regulations and judicial interpretations; (6) as a result, Congress has never explicitly accepted ecological sustainability as the Forest Service's highest priority or acknowledged its effects on the availability of timber, recreation, and other goods and services on the national forests; (7) the Forest Service has made some progress in developing goals, objectives, and strategies that help translate its priorities into on-the-ground projects and activities; (8) the agency is refining its goals and objectives to better focus on outcomes and results to be achieved over time; (9) it is also developing a strategy to reduce the incidence of uncontrollable and often catastrophic wildfires; (10) yet, even though many of these goals, objectives, and strategies are to be implemented through on-the-ground projects and activities governed by individual forest plans, the agency's proposed planning regulations do not require that these forest plans be clearly linked to the goals, objectives, and strategies; (11) in developing and implementing forest plans, national forests have not always: (a) based their decisions on accurate and complete data; (b) adequately involved the public and other government agencies throughout the forest planning process; or (c) lived up to monitoring requirements, particularly those for monitoring the effects of past planning decisions; and (12) this has resulted in legal challenges to the plans and limited the implementation of efforts to expedite the planning process.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Bush administration has proposed forest planning regulations to replace the Clinton-era regulations that were the subject of GAO's recommendation. These new proposed regulations do not address the issues GAO raised in its report. Accordingly, this recommendation is being closed as being no longer likely to be implemented.

    Recommendation: Although the Forest Service's 1999 proposed planning regulations would help national forests to resolve conflicts among competing uses when developing and implementing forest plans by making clear that ecological sustainability is the agency's highest priority, Congress has never explicitly accepted this as the Forest Service's highest priority. Therefore, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to work with Congress to ensure agreement on what the agency's mission priorities should be.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its final revised forest plan regulations issued on November 9, 2000, the Forest Service added or clarified linkage to its strategic plan in several places. However, these changes fall far short of requiring national forests to clearly link their plans to the agency's strategic goals, objectives, and strategies as GAO recommended.

    Recommendation: Since forest plans play a pivotal role in translating the agency's strategic goals, objectives, and strategies into on-the-ground projects and activities, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to revise the agency's proposed planning regulations to: (1) require national forests to clearly link forest plans to the agency's strategic goals, objectives, and strategies; and (2) blend them with local priorities in revising the forest plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Bush administration has proposed forest planning regulations to replace the Clinton-era regulations that were the subject of GAO's recommendation. These new proposed regulations do not address the issues GAO raised in its report. Accordingly, this recommendation is being closed as being no longer likely to be implemented.

    Recommendation: While GAO continues to believe that it would be preferable to place the necessary direction and guidance relating to public participation and monitoring in the Forest Service's planning regulations, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to, at a minimum, revise the agency's system of directives to require the national forests to develop: (1) communications strategies describing how the public and other governmental entities will participate in all stages of revising a forest plan; and (2) comprehensive monitoring and evaluation strategies describing how implementation of the plan will be monitored to determine how well their objectives and requirements have been met and how the data will be used to make changes to management decisions. Also, the forests should be required to: (1) involve the public and other interested parties in developing these strategies; and (2) make the strategies available to the public as a basis for holding the forests more accountable for their performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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