Tongass National Forest:

Lack of Accountability for Time and Costs Has Delayed Forest Plan Revision

T-RCED-97-153: Published: Apr 29, 1997. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 1997.

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GAO discussed the decisionmaking process being used by the Forest Service to revise the land management plan for the Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska.

GAO noted that its work on the Forest Service's process for revising the Tongass forest plan showed that: (1) the Service originally planned to spend 3 years revising the plan; (2) at the end of 3 years, the agency had spent about $4 million; however, it has spent another 7 years and $9 million studying and restudying issues without establishing a clear sequence or schedule for their timely resolution, attempting to reconcile its older emphasis on producing timber with its more recent emphasis on sustaining wildlife and fish, and attempting to reach agreement with federal regulatory agencies on an acceptable level of risk to individual natural resources; (3) GAO's work identified that these factors have contributed to inefficiency in decisionmaking throughout the agency; (4) in revising the Tongass forest plan, the Service has incurred unexpected delays and high costs to better ensure that the new plan is legally defensible, scientifically credible, and able to sustain the forest's resources;(5) developing a forest plan to avoid or prevail against legal challenges has become increasingly time-consuming and costly; (6) on the Tongass, insufficient data and scientific uncertainty have hindered the development of a plan that can ensure the maintenance of viable populations of animals; (7) as an option to further study and planning without resolution, the Service may be able to move forward with a decision conditioned on an adequate monitoring component and modify the decision when new information is uncovered or when preexisting monitoring thresholds are crossed; (8) however, the Service has historically failed to live up to its own monitoring requirements and, as a result, federal regulatory agencies and other stakeholders continue to insist that the Service prepare increasingly time-consuming and costly detailed environmental analyses and documentation before making a decision, effectively front-loading the process and perpetuating the cycle of inefficiency; (9) while the agency is being held accountable for developing a plan that may be legally defensible, scientifically credible, and able to sustain the forest's resources, it is not being held accountable for making a timely, orderly, and cost-effective decision; and (10) the costs of the Service's indecision in revising the Tongass plan are being borne by the American taxpayer and by the members of the public who are concerned about maintaining the forest's diverse species but are precluded from forming reasonable expectations about the forest's health over time and/or are economically dependent on the Tongass but are uncertain about the future availability of its uses.

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