Forest Service:

Construction of National Forest Roads

RCED-97-160R: Published: May 27, 1997. Publicly Released: May 27, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Forest Service's road-building program, focusing on: (1) how the Forest Service determines the need for and the types of roads to be constructed in national forests; (2) how and why the Forest Service's road-building costs differ from those of other timber sellers; and (3) actions the Forest Service could take to reduce these costs.

GAO noted that: (1) the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974 requires that the national forests construct an adequate and safe system of forest roads; (2) to comply with this requirement and to determine the need for permanent forest roads, each national forest prepares a forest management plan; (3) forest plans, which cover a period of up 15 years, are designed to, among other things, identify forest road needs on the basis of such factors as public access, the location of planned timber sales, programmed wildlife management activities, and efforts to improve timber stands, such as thinning and fertilizing; (4) however, forest plans, most of which were prepared and approved 10 to 15 years ago, may be outdated because the conditions on national forests, such as the volume of timber that can be harvested, may have changed significantly, perhaps negating the need for some or all of the roads identified in the plans; (5) there are three primary differences in road construction costs between the Forest Service and other federal and state timber sellers; (6) the Forest Service and most of the other federal and state timber sellers GAO reviewed generally use similar guidelines to estimate the costs of the access roads to be constructed by a timber purchaser; (7) however, the Forest Service may give "road credits" to a timber purchaser equal to the estimated costs of constructing forest roads; (8) the timber purchaser can use the road credits instead of cash to pay for some of the harvested timber; (9) other federal and state timber sellers require that the purchasers factor road construction costs into their bids for the timber, and it is generally assumed that purchasers lower their bids to account for these costs; (10) of the timber sellers GAO reviewed that give road credits, only the Forest Service is required by law to treat road credits as receipts even though no cash is actually received for the timber; (11) although the Forest Service and most of the other federal and state timber sellers GAO reviewed use similar cost guidelines to construct roads, road costs are not entirely comparable because, in some cases, the Forest Service constructs roads to a higher safety standard; and (12) timber industry representatives, environmentalists, and purchasers of federal timber suggested to GAO various actions that the Forest Service could take to reduce its forest road costs and still improve public safety on forest roads, reduce the impact of forest roads on the environment, and improve the ability of the Forest Service to fully maintain the national forest road system.

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