Forest Service:

Broad-Scale Assessments Could Be Better Integrated Into the Forest Planning Process

T-RCED-00-146: Published: Apr 11, 2000. Publicly Released: Apr 11, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the Forest Service's forest plans, focusing on the: (1) role of broad-scale assessments in the agency's planning process; (2) lessons that have been learned about conducting such assessments; and (3) importance of holding Forest Service managers accountable for integrating the assessments into their planning processes.

GAO noted that: (1) broad-scale assessments now fill a critical void that existed in the Forest Service's planning process as it developed its initial set of forest plans between 1979 and 1995; (2) during that period, the agency lacked the ability to adequately address ecological, economic, and social issues that extended beyond the boundaries of the national forests; (3) without this ability, the planning process was often characterized by inefficiency and waste as individual national forests independently attempted to gather and analyze often noncomparable data and parties successfully challenged forest plans and projects, causing the Forest Service to delay, amend, and withdraw them; (4) as the Forest Service has begun incorporating broad-scale assessments into its forest plans, it has been more successful in identifying and analyzing these issues and in defining management alternatives; (5) experience with broad-scale assessments to date has shown that they need to include certain key elements in order to maximize their value in helping managers reach decisions on how best to manage federal lands and resources; (6) in particular, as GAO found in a review of assessments in the northwest and the Great Lakes, the Forest Service needs to have clear objectives, identifiable products, firm deadlines, and realistic cost estimates; (7) experience has shown that they need to: (a) be open and accessible to all interested and affected federal and nonfederal parties; (b) occur early in the process of amending or revising a forest plan so that issues can be identified, data gathered and analyzed, and conclusions drawn before management alternatives are identified and proposed; and (c) identify the range of ecologically viable and legally sufficient management alternatives, but not result in decisions; (8) in amending or revising the plans, the Forest Service managers need to address ecological and socioeconomic issues that extend beyond the boundaries of national forests; (9) despite the recognized benefits of broad-scale assessments in addressing these issues, some Forest Service officials still do not view assessments as a priority, and have not been held accountable for doing assessments properly; and (10) thus, they have not provided the leadership, guidance, and funding necessary to complete an assessment in a timely manner.

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