Western National Forests:

Status of Forest Service's Efforts to Reduce Catastrophic Wildfire Threats

T-RCED-99-241: Published: Jun 29, 1999. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the status of efforts by the Forest Service to develop a cohesive strategy to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires in national forests in the interior West.

GAO noted that: (1) the Forest Service has begun to develop a strategy to address the growing threat that catastrophic wildfires pose to forest resources and nearby communities; (2) developing and implementing such a strategy presents a difficult challenge to the agency because the wildfire issue transcends the boundaries of both its regions and forests and its resource-specific programs; (3) confronted with other issues that transcend these boundaries--such as protecting the habitat of the threatened northern spotted owl--the Forest Service has, on occasion, shown that it can develop and implement a cohesive strategy expeditiously and at a relatively low cost; (4) at other times, it has begun to develop a strategy but has either studied and restudied the issue without ever doing so or developed a strategy but left its implementation to the discretion of its independent and highly autonomous field offices with mixed results; (5) what separates the strategies that are effectively implemented from those that are not is whether the agency treats the issue as an agencywide priority; (6) those issues that are treated as priorities: (a) benefit from a sense of urgency and strong leadership by top-level management in developing and implementing a strategy; (b) are addressed through a strategy that provides the agency's managers with adequate direction and sets standards for holding them accountable; and (c) are allocated the resources necessary to implement the strategy; and (7) to date, GAO has not seen the strong leadership or the marshalling of funds and resources within the agency that would indicate to GAO that the Forest Service feels a sense of urgency and assigns a high priority to reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

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