Ecosystem Planning:

Northwest Forest and Interior Columbia River Basin Plans Demonstrate Improvements in Land-Use Planning

RCED-99-64: Published: May 26, 1999. Publicly Released: May 26, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Forest Service's and the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) efforts to implement two ecosystem-based studies--the Northwest Forest Plan and the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, focusing on: (1) the extent to which each effort has addressed long-standing planning deficiencies; (2) whether the agencies encountered the delays and significant costs that have been characteristic of previous planning efforts; and (3) the effect that the plans have had, or are expected to have, on the quantity and quality of timber sold from federal lands covered by the plans.

GAO noted that: (1) both the process used to develop and implement the Northwest Forest Plan and the process being used to develop a plan to manage federal lands in the interior Columbia River basin address many of the long-standing planning deficiencies that have contributed to delays, increased costs, and unmet objectives in other land management plans; (2) the Forest Service and BLM completed the Northwest Forest Plan expeditiously and at a relatively low cost, while the interior Columbia River basin plan has taken much longer and cost much more than originally expected and has not yet been approved; (3) the Northwest Forest Plan was developed in 1 year at a cost of about $3.5 million; (4) this was a timely and cost-effective effort compared with past national forest planning efforts that took from 3 to 10 years to complete and, in the Pacific Northwest, cost between $5 million and $8 million even though they covered much smaller areas; (5) the timeliness of the plan was, in part, a function of the fact that the agencies had been gathering data on the old-growth forest habitat of the northern spotted owl for many years; (6) although the agencies' 5-year effort to develop a plan for the interior Columbia River basin has overcome some long-standing deficiencies, it has not yet led to a final plan; (7) the ongoing project has already taken 2-1/2 years longer and, at $41 million, cost $10 million more than anticipated; (8) some of the delays and higher costs to date have occurred because the agencies underestimated the time and effort required to address the ecological diversity and broad array of land management issues that exist in the interior Columbia River basin; (9) GAO also believes that their originally proposed alternatives did not give adequate information to stakeholders on how and with what effect the alternatives would be implemented; (10) timber harvests have declined significantly since the 1980s and will likely remain at current levels under the Northwest Forest Plan; (11) existing laws have resulted in less federal land being available for timber production and less timber being produced from the land that is available; (12) moreover, the Forest Service and BLM overestimated the volume of timber to be harvested under their original preferred management alternative for federal lands in the interior Columbia River basin; and (13) as a result, the agencies created unrealistic expectations for relatively high timber harvests that would probably not have occurred.

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: The Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should provide additional direction to the interagency team responsible for developing the plan for managing federal lands in the interior Columbia River basin. Specifically, the Secretaries should direct that in revising the draft plan to focus on those issues that are appropriately addressed basinwide, the team should: (1) identify the ecological and socioeconomic trade-offs among the different land management alternatives proposed to address basinwide issues, including the likely effects of those alternatives on outputs such as timber across federal land units within the basin; (2) provide land managers with clear direction for implementation along with performance standards for holding them accountable; and (3) make basinwide management decisions and estimates for outputs such as timber taking full account of existing environmental laws and regulations, budgetary constraints, and other variables.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The interagency team responsible for developing the plan revised it to (1) discuss both the environmental consequences and social and economic considerations of redesigned and refocused management alternatives, (2) include numerous changes to improve the clarity and intent of the management direction, (3) identify implementation costs as well as the expected impacts on products and services, and (4) integrate the plan with other plans focused on smaller geographic areas.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should provide additional direction to the interagency team responsible for developing the plan for managing federal lands in the interior Columbia River basin. Specifically, the Secretaries should direct that in revising the draft plan to focus on those issues that are appropriately addressed basinwide, the team should: (1) identify the ecological and socioeconomic trade-offs among the different land management alternatives proposed to address basinwide issues, including the likely effects of those alternatives on outputs such as timber across federal land units within the basin; (2) provide land managers with clear direction for implementation along with performance standards for holding them accountable; and (3) make basinwide management decisions and estimates for outputs such as timber taking full account of existing environmental laws and regulations, budgetary constraints, and other variables.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The interagency team responsible for developing the plan revised it to (1) discuss both the environmental consequences and social and economic considerations of redesigned and refocused management alternatives, (2) include numerous changes to improve the clarity and intent of the management direction, (3) identify implementation costs as well as the expected impacts on products and services, and (4) integrate the plan with other plans focused on smaller geographic areas.

    Recommendation: Given that the agencies intend the interior Columbia River basin plan to make management decisions for a limited number of basinwide issues and that additional management plans focused on smaller geographic scales will therefore be needed to provide additional management direction, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the interagency team to prepare for Congress and the public details on how the additional plans will be integrated with the interior Columbia River basin plan and to estimate the time and resources that will be needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The interagency team responsible for developing the plan redesigned and refocused its alternatives for managing federal lands in the basin. Among other things, the revised plan clarified the management intent for "step-down" analysis in which basin wide scientific findings and management direction are applied to site-specific activities and risks to resources are addressed at the appropriate ecological scale.

    Recommendation: Given that the agencies intend the interior Columbia River basin plan to make management decisions for a limited number of basinwide issues and that additional management plans focused on smaller geographic scales will therefore be needed to provide additional management direction, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the interagency team to prepare for Congress and the public details on how the additional plans will be integrated with the interior Columbia River basin plan and to estimate the time and resources that will be needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The interagency team responsible for developing the plan redesigned and refocused its alternatives for managing federal lands in the basin. Among other things, the revised plan clarified the management intent for "step-down" analysis in which basin wide scientific findings and management direction are applied to site-specific activities and risks to resources are addressed at the appropriate ecological scale.

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