Forest Service Priorities:

Evolving Mission Favors Resource Protection Over Production

RCED-99-166: Published: Jun 17, 1999. Publicly Released: Jul 9, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Forest Service's evolving mission, focusing on the: (1) priorities that Congress set in enacting the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which guides the development of plans for managing national forests; (2) Forest Service's mission and funding priorities and how they have evolved over the past 2 decades; and (3) effect of these priorities on the availability of timber and on the costs of and receipts from timber sales.

GAO noted that: (1) the National Forest Management Act attempts to facilitate continuous levels of timber production on Forest Service lands while, at the same time, protecting and improving other forest resources, such as air, water, and wildlife and fish habitat; (2) however, the act and other multiple-use laws intended to guide the management of the national forests provide little guidance on how the agency is to resolve conflicts or make choices among competing uses on its lands; (3) the National Forest Management Act and other multiple-use laws guiding the management of the national forests provide little guidance on how the agency is to resolve conflicts or make choices among competing uses on is lands; (4) however, the requirements in environmental laws and their implementing regulations and judicial interpretations do; (5) the Forest Service has responded to these environmental requirements and judicial interpretations over time; (6) it has also responded to changing public values and concerns about the management of the national forests and to increased scientific understanding of the functioning of natural systems and their components; (7) over the past 2 decades, the Forest Service has refocused its activities away from producing goods and services (such as timber) and toward protecting land health and forest resources; (8) during the past year, the Forest Service clearly stated that its overriding mission and funding priority is to maintain or restore the health of the lands entrusted to its care; (9) furthermore, according to the Forest Service, it intends to limit goods and services in the national forests to the types, levels, and mixes imposed by considerations of land health and ecological sustainability; (10) as the Forest Service has increased its emphasis on resource protection and ecological sustainability, the timber harvested in national forests has decreased substantially, in both quantity and quality; and (11) at the same time, the per-unit costs to prepare, sell, and harvest timber have increased dramatically while the receipts have declined sharply.

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