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Report to Congressional Requesters:

June 2004:

Wildland Fires:

Forest Service and BLM Need Better Information and a Systematic 
Approach for Assessing the Risks of Environmental Effects:

GAO-04-705:

GAO Highlights:

Highlights of GAO-04-705, a report to congressional requesters:

Why GAO Did This Study:

Decades of fire suppression, as well as changing land management 
practices, have caused vegetation to accumulate and become altered on 
federal lands. Concerns about the effects of wildland fires have 
increased efforts to reduce fuels on federal lands. These efforts also 
have environmental effects. The requesters asked GAO to (1) describe 
effects from fires on the environment, (2) assess the information 
gathered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on 
such effects, and (3) assess the agencies’ approaches to environmental 
risks associated with reducing fuels. 

What GAO Found:

Wildland fires can have dramatic effects on environmental resources and 
ecosystems, including production of large amounts of smoke, loss of 
trees, and erosion of soil into streams and lakes. However, fires can 
also benefit resources by recycling soil nutrients, renewing 
vegetation growth, and adding gravel to streams, which improves 
spawning habitat for fish. The 20 wildland fires that we surveyed 
burned over 158,000 acres of federal land and had complex, 
wide-ranging, and sometimes contradictory, effects on both individual 
resources, such as trees and streams, and ecosystems. For example, the 
short-term effects of the Missionary Ridge fire in Colorado that 
burned almost 50,000 acres of trees and other vegetation included 
increased debris and sediment that affected water quality in some 
areas. However, in other areas, officials said even dramatic changes 
to streams would not be detrimental in the long term.      

The Forest Service and BLM gather specific information on the 
environmental effects of individual wildland fires, such as soil 
erosion.  The agencies do not, however, gather comprehensive data on 
the severity of wildland fire effects on broad landscapes and 
ecosystems—that is, large areas that may involve one or more fires. 
The agencies recently developed a monitoring framework to gather 
severity data for fires, but they have not yet implemented it.  These 
data are needed to monitor the progress of the agencies’ actions to 
restore and maintain resilient fire-adapted ecosystems, a goal of the 
National Fire Plan.  

The National Fire Plan directs the Forest Service and BLM to target 
their fuel reduction activities with the purpose of lowering the risk 
of environmental effects from wildland fires in areas that face the 
greatest losses.  However, the agencies do not systematically assess 
the risks across landscapes that fires pose to different environmental 
resources or ecosystems or the risks of taking no action on fuel 
reduction projects. At the landscape level, the Forest Service and BLM 
do not have a formal framework for systematically assessing the risk of 
fire to resources and ecosystems, although some of the forests and BLM 
field offices have developed risk assessments on their own or in 
collaboration with regional, state, or local efforts.  At the project 
level, while the agencies recognize the need to better analyze the risk 
of acting to reduce fuels versus not doing so, neither fire planning 
guidance nor National Environmental Policy Act guidance specify how to 
do this. Opportunities exist to clarify how the agencies should 
analyze the effects of not taking action to reduce fuels.  The 
agencies can clarify interim guidance to implement the Healthy Forests 
Restoration Act, and the agencies can, in conjunction with CEQ, further 
develop the lessons learned from a CEQ demonstration program carried 
out in 2003. Without a risk-based approach, these agencies cannot 
target their fuel reduction projects across landscapes or make fully 
informed decisions about which effects and project alternatives are 
more desirable.   

What GAO Recommends:

This report recommends that the Secretaries of Agriculture and the 
Interior (1) develop a plan to implement the agencies’ monitoring 
framework, (2) develop guidance that formalizes the assessment of 
landscape-level risks to ecosystems, and (3) clarify existing 
guidance, working with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), to 
assess the risks of environmental effects from reducing fuels.

Commenting on the draft report, Agriculture and Interior agreed that 
more data are needed and prioritization of fuels work can be improved, 
but had concerns about developing guidance on a risk-based approach. 
CEQ commented that its guidance is not intended to address risk 
analysis.

www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-04-705.

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click 
on the link above.  For more information, contact Barry T. Hill at 
(202) 512-9775 or hillbt@gao.gov.

Contents:

Letter:

Results in Brief:

Background:

Wildland Fires Have Wide-Ranging Effects on Environmental Resources and 
Ecosystems, Depending on a Range of Factors:

Forest Service and BLM Do Not Gather Comprehensive Information on the 
Varied Effects of Wildland Fires on Ecosystems and Landscapes:

The Forest Service and BLM Do Not Systematically Assess the Risks to 
Environmental Resources and Ecosystems to Target and Conduct Fuel 
Reduction Activities:

Conclusions:

Recommendations for Executive Action:

Agency Comments and Our Evaluation:

Appendixes:

Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and Methodology:

Appendix II: Fire Regime Condition Class Analysis:

Appendix III: Definition of Fire/Burn Severity:

Appendix IV: Selected Wildland Fire Survey Results:

Appendix V: Remote Sensing Data and Systems:

Appendix VI: Examples of Models for Assessing Wildland Fires and Fuels:

Appendix VII: Consolidated Comments from the Departments of Agriculture 
and the Interior:

Appendix VIII: Comments from the Council on Environmental Quality:

Appendix IX: GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments:

GAO Contacts:

Staff Acknowledgments:

Tables:

Table 1: Assessment of Overall Effects on Individual Resources in the 
Short and Long Term:

Table 2: Description of Characteristic and Uncharacteristic Fire 
Effects and Vegetation Conditions:

Table 3: Forest Service and BLM Office Assessments and the Risk Elements 
Addressed:

Table 4: Results of GAO's Review of 10 Fuel Reduction Project 
Environmental Assessments:

Table 5: Classes of Fire Severity for Soils and Vegetation:

Table 6: Acres Burned by Fire, Land Ownership, and Percent of Forest and 
BLM Field Office Land Base:

Table 7: Types and Uses of Federal Land within Fire Perimeters:

Table 8: Miles of Perennial Streams and Number of Floods, Debris Flows, 
or Landslides within Fire Perimeters:

Table 9: Municipal Watersheds within Severely Burned Areas:

Table 10: Fires Affecting Threatened and Endangered Species Populations 
and Habitats:

Table 11: Air Emissions by Fire:

Table 12: Fire Effects on Soils by Burn Severity and Erosion Potential:

Table 13: Fire Effects on Vegetation:

Figures: 

Figure 1: Number of Fires and Acres Burned, 1960-2002:

Figure 2: Effects of Wildland Fire in Treated and Untreated Areas Burned 
by Wildland Fire:

Figure 3: Conceptual Short-and Long-Term Effects on Vegetation After a 
High-Severity Wildland Fire:

Figure 4: Relationship of Ecosystem and Landscape Levels:

Figure 5: Acres of Vegetation Burned Lightly, Moderately, and Severely 
in 20 Sample Fires:

Figure 6: Location of Forest Service and BLM Wildland Fires Visited and 
Surveyed:

Figure 7: Wildland Fire Hazard:

Figure 8: Remote Sensing Technologies and the Data Produced:

Figure 9: Images and Data Collected Using Aerial and Satellite 
Technology Compared with an Actual Site:

Abbreviations:

BAER: Burned Area Emergency Response:

BLM: Bureau of Land Management:

CEQ: Council on Environmental Quality:

ESR: Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation:

FRCC: Fire Regime Condition Class:

HFRA: Healthy Forests Restoration Act:

NEPA: National Environmental Policy Act:

NFMA: National Forest Management Act:

NOAA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

Letter: 

June 24, 2004:

Congressional Requesters:

Decades of fire suppression, in conjunction with land management 
activities that have excluded fire from the nation's forests and 
rangelands,[Footnote 1] such as roads and trails, grazing, and 
development near public land, have caused the accumulation of brush, 
small trees, and other vegetation on federal and other lands. Recent 
fire seasons have shown that these land management practices have had 
unforeseen consequences. The accumulation and alteration of vegetation, 
in combination with an extended drought that has covered much of the 
country, has caused wildland fires to burn more intensely than they 
would under more natural or historical vegetation conditions. In 
response to changing views of wildland fire, the Federal Wildland Fire 
Management Policy developed by the Departments of Agriculture and the 
Interior in 1995 recognized the natural role of wildland fire and the 
potential for "catastrophic" fires to occur in areas of accumulated 
vegetation. In 2000, federal scientists and land managers estimated 
that 182 million acres of land in the United States had accumulations 
of vegetation that were highly altered from more historical conditions.

Under historical conditions, many forest and rangeland ecosystems--
which are different ecological units distinguished by physical 
characteristics such as mountains, plains, and river basins, as well as 
their associated plant and animal communities--have adapted to wildland 
fire, surviving and regenerating after fires occur. Under these 
conditions, wildland fire can often have beneficial effects for 
resources and ecosystems, such as recycling soil nutrients, renewing 
vegetation growth, and sustaining ecological functions. However, 
federal scientists and land managers believe that the adverse effects 
of wildland fires are exacerbated in ecosystems with uncharacteristic 
vegetation conditions, that is, in which vegetation has accumulated or 
been altered by fire exclusion. Adverse effects of wildland fire on 
individual resources include reduced air and water quality, soil loss, 
and loss of threatened and endangered species and their habitat. In 
addition, wildland fires that cover broad landscapes can adversely 
affect all or parts of forest or rangeland ecosystems. In particular, 
scientists and land managers are concerned that, after years of fire 
exclusion, in dry forest ecosystems the large old trees that used to 
survive fires now burn and die, and will not be replaced for over 100 
years, eliminating sources of seeds and turning forests into 
shrubfields. Scientists and land managers are also concerned that the 
natural occurrence of wildland fire in grassland ecosystems has been 
altered by invasive species, such as cheatgrass, that have replaced 
native vegetation. Furthermore, communities in the interface of 
wildland areas that develop into areas where there are uncharacteristic 
fuel accumulations may experience exacerbated effects of wildland 
fires.

In 2001, in response to one of the worst fire seasons in over 50 years, 
the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior reiterated the 
principles in the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and began 
working with state and local agencies and tribal governments to develop 
an interagency National Fire Plan to coordinate federal, state, local, 
and tribal efforts. Together, the policy and plan offer a new approach 
to wildland fires by broadening the emphasis to include reducing 
vegetation, or fuels, and reintroducing fire, where possible, to 
restore ecosystems to more resilient fire-adapted conditions. The 
reintroduction of fire to certain federal lands does not mean, however, 
that all fires will be allowed to burn without management. Currently, 
there are two approaches to wildland fire management. First, all 
unplanned wildland fires are suppressed or are managed--given favorable 
weather conditions--to achieve beneficial effects to resources. Second, 
wildland fire management activities also include the reduction of fuels 
to protect communities and maintain or improve ecological conditions of 
the land. Fuel reduction activities include mechanical methods such as 
chainsaws, chippers, mulchers, and bulldozers, and prescribed burns. 
Prescribed burns may be set to restore or maintain desired vegetation 
conditions.

The degree to which fire can be reintroduced to different forest and 
rangeland ecosystems depends on the risk fire poses to environmental 
resources and ecosystems. Under the National Fire Plan, land managers 
are to identify ways to reduce the risk to communities and ecosystems 
from wildland fire. Risk, according to the National Academy of 
Sciences, involves hazardous events or conditions and the potential 
loss of or damage to something of value because of the hazard. In the 
case of wildland fires, the hazard involved is not only the fire, but 
also the excess vegetation, or fuel, that has accumulated or been 
altered on federal lands. A primary way to lower risks involves 
reducing the amount, type, or continuity of vegetation available to 
burn. The National Fire Plan applies to several federal agencies that 
manage public lands and wildland fires, including the Forest Service 
within the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Land Management, 
National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Fish and 
Wildlife Service within the Department of the Interior. These agencies 
are all members of the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, formed in 2002 
to support and coordinate implementation of the National Fire Plan and 
Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy. Two of these agencies--the 
Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)--manage 
approximately 450 million acres or 60 percent of the nation's federal 
land.

In managing the effects of wildland fires, the Forest Service and BLM 
face a second type of risk--that the actions they take to reduce fuels 
and to restore ecosystems may damage additional resources such as 
species, habitat, or water, whereas if they do not take action, the 
effects of a future fire may be exacerbated. Consequently, the 
agencies' assessment of the potential effects of their activities 
involves weighing the risk of action to reduce fuels against the risk 
of doing nothing. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 
1969, agencies generally evaluate the likely environmental effects of 
projects they are proposing using a relatively brief environmental 
assessment, or, if the action would be likely to significantly affect 
the environment, a more detailed environmental impact 
statement.[Footnote 2] One purpose of this analysis is to ensure that 
agencies have available detailed information concerning potentially 
significant environmental impacts to inform their decision making. The 
Forest Service and BLM typically conduct such analyses at two levels: 
the entire national forest or BLM land unit, which can encompass 
several broad landscapes, and the more specific project level, which 
addresses smaller areas within the landscape.

Concerns about the severity of recent wildland fires and their 
environmental effects have led to increased efforts to reduce fuels on 
federal lands, which culminated in the enactment of the Healthy Forests 
Restoration Act (HFRA) in December 2003.[Footnote 3] There has been 
considerable disagreement over the extent of environmental effects of 
wildland fire on federal lands, and what, if anything, to do about 
them. The timber industry and other groups advocated increasing the use 
of mechanical tree thinning and timber sales to reduce the vegetation 
accumulating on the nation's forests and rangelands. Critics of this 
approach, which included environmental groups, cited its potentially 
detrimental effects on environmental resources, particularly large old 
trees. Both the advocates and the critics generally agreed on the 
actions needed to address risk to communities; however, there is little 
agreement as to what steps, if any, should be taken to reduce the risk 
posed to ecosystems. In this context, you asked us to (1) describe the 
effects wildland fires have on environmental resources and ecosystems, 
(2) assess the information the Forest Service and BLM gather on the 
extent of environmental effects of wildland fires, and (3) assess the 
approaches the Forest Service and BLM take to assess the risk to 
environmental resources from wildland fires and the vegetation that has 
accumulated or been altered on federal lands.

To describe the effects that wildland fires have on environmental 
resources and ecosystems and assess the information the Forest Service 
and BLM gather on the extent of these effects, we designed a survey of 
local federal land managers who maintain this data. Our survey 
contained questions about 20 wildland fires that we randomly selected 
from a universe of 614 wildland fires. Some of the questions required 
that the land managers provide their opinions of conditions or make 
predictions about the future effects of a wildland fire rather than 
providing data about effects that had already occurred, and therefore 
there is a greater amount of uncertainty regarding the accuracy of 
these responses. We identified the 614 fires through Forest Service and 
BLM reports completed in fiscal years 2000 through 2002 on the 
emergency actions needed to stabilize areas burned in the fires. We 
used these reports to identify our sample because the reports are 
developed for wildland fires that the agencies determined are likely to 
have had considerable environmental effects. We conducted a random 
sample of these 614 fires to ensure that we had a range of small, 
medium, and large wildland fires.[Footnote 4] To gather information on 
the approaches the Forest Service and BLM use to assess the risks to 
environmental resources posed by wildland fire, we reviewed federal 
wildland fire policies, the National Fire Plan, and agency guidance and 
planning and project documents. We also interviewed federal and state 
agency officials, scientists from several of the Forest Service's 
research stations, and university experts on fire and fire effects. We 
attended two national conferences on fire issues and visited national 
forests and BLM state offices in eight western states that had 
experienced large fires. We conducted our review from April 2003 
through April 2004 in accordance with generally accepted government 
auditing standards. Appendix I provides further details about the scope 
and methodology of our review.

Results in Brief:

The 20 wildland fires that we surveyed burned over 158,000 acres of 
federal land and had complex, wide-ranging, and sometimes 
contradictory, effects on both individual resources, such as trees and 
streams, and ecosystems. For example, the Missionary Ridge fire in 
Colorado burned almost 50,000 acres. The loss of trees and vegetation 
in some of the burned areas, as well as chemical and physical changes 
in the soil, has caused increased flooding and debris flows in local 
streams, which has affected water quality in the short term. However, 
in the long term, land managers indicated that even dramatic changes to 
streams in other burned areas would not be detrimental. Of the 20 
wildland fires in our survey, the land managers viewed the effects of 
the wildland fires as adverse, neutral, or beneficial, depending on a 
number of factors, including the short-and long-term time frames in 
which the effects were described, and the type and condition of the 
vegetation that had existed in the burned area. The managers also 
reported that the 20 fires had effects across broad landscapes and that 
these effects varied in severity.

The Forest Service and BLM gather specific information and data on the 
effects of some individual wildland fires on environmental resources, 
such as soil erosion or acres of trees burned, for the purpose of 
stabilizing burned areas. However, they do not gather comprehensive 
data on the long-term severity of wildland fire effects on broad 
landscapes and ecosystems--that is, on large areas that may involve one 
or more burns--because they do not have a monitoring plan to gather 
landscape data across fires. Wildland fires can have varying effects 
over time and space, and, as a result, it is important that the 
agencies have comprehensive data to monitor the progress of the their 
actions to restore fire-adapted ecosystems, a goal of the National Fire 
Plan. The agencies recently developed a monitoring framework that 
includes fire severity, but this plan has not yet been implemented. 
Data on severity would help the agencies to assess whether, over time, 
fires in forest and rangeland ecosystems are burning with more or less 
severe effects and whether the ecosystems are being restored to more 
fire-adapted, or resilient, conditions. Without the ability to identify 
the broad landscape effects of fire on vegetation conditions as fires 
occur, the agencies will have difficulty showing whether they have met 
their identified desired conditions and whether different ecosystems 
are becoming more or less resilient to fire.

The Forest Service and BLM, when planning fuel reduction activities, do 
not have a systematic approach that allows them to assess the risks of 
environmental effects from wildland fires at the landscape level or the 
specific project level. As a result, the agencies do not systematically 
assess the risks that fires pose to different environmental resources 
or ecosystems or the risks of taking no action on fuel reduction 
projects, although the National Fire Plan directs them to target their 
fuel reduction activities in areas that face the greatest losses. At 
the landscape level, the Forest Service and BLM do not have a common 
framework for assessing the risk of fire to environmental resources and 
ecosystems as part of their fuel reduction efforts because they and the 
Congress have placed high priority on assessing areas that threaten 
communities. The agencies have not focused exclusively on communities, 
as several of their field offices have begun efforts to assess the 
risks of environmental and ecosystem effects in planning their fuel 
reduction activities. Without a systematic approach to assessing risk 
to ecosystems at the landscape level, the agencies cannot effectively 
target their fuel reduction activities to protect areas that face the 
greatest losses, or, conversely, identify areas that can benefit from 
the reintroduction of fire. To formalize a common framework for such 
risk assessments, the Forest Service and BLM could use the experience 
of other agencies that conduct risk assessments, such as the Federal 
Emergency Management Agency or the Environmental Protection Agency, as 
well as the experience of those field offices that have independently 
conducted such assessments. In assessing the risks associated with 
individual projects, the Forest Service and BLM have in some instances 
assessed, under NEPA, the risk of acting to reduce fuels versus the 
risk of not doing so. We reviewed 10 of the agencies' assessments and 
determined the agencies did not systematically assess the risks of 
taking or not taking action to reduce fuels. Agency guidance is not 
specific about how this assessment should be performed and whether 
these analyses should be contained in NEPA documentation. The agencies 
have opportunities to specify how the risks of not reducing fuels 
should be assessed and where this assessment should be documented. The 
agencies have developed interim guidance for implementing the Healthy 
Forests Restoration Act, but the guidance does not go far enough in 
describing the analysis needed for showing the effects of not reducing 
fuels. Also, the agencies and the Council on Environmental Quality 
(CEQ) are developing model environmental assessments and lessons 
learned from a demonstration program developing model environmental 
assessments for fuel reduction projects, in which the agencies 
participated. Without a risk-based approach at the project level, the 
agencies cannot make fully informed decisions about which effects and 
project alternatives are more desirable.

We are making recommendations to the Secretaries of Agriculture and the 
Interior to help ensure that the Forest Service and BLM develop (1) the 
information needed to better understand the full extent of 
environmental and ecosystem effects from wildland fires, (2) a 
systematic framework for the assessment of risks at the landscape level 
to target where fuel reduction activities need to occur, and (3) 
specific guidance on a risk-based approach to make trade-offs among the 
environmental effects of acting to reduce fuels or doing nothing.

In commenting on a draft of this report, the Departments of Agriculture 
and the Interior stated that the report provided a thorough analysis of 
a complex set of issues. They agreed that information on the long-term 
effects of fire is needed and noted that on May 18, 2004, they approved 
a monitoring framework that includes such information. They also agreed 
that prioritization of fuel reduction projects can be improved but 
expressed a number of concerns about our recommendation that they 
develop a systematic risk-based approach to help prioritize projects. 
Finally, they did not agree with our recommendation that they provide 
specific guidance on the assessment of the effects of not taking action 
to reduce fuels. CEQ also provided comments on this recommendation, 
stating that we should not imply that CEQ's guidance to help develop 
fuel reduction projects was meant to discuss risk analysis and the 
risks of not taking action to reduce fuels. While we made modifications 
to our report to address these concerns and to clarify our 
recommendations, we continue to believe that our recommendations are 
warranted.

Background:

Wildland fire is an inevitable natural ecological disturbance that has 
helped to shape ecosystems over time. Fires are driven by climate and 
weather conditions, topography, and fuels--including trees, brush, 
grasses, dead leaves and needles, and other material that will burn. 
Thousands of fires are started each year by natural causes, such as 
lightning, or human causes, such as arson. These fires burn millions of 
acres of state and federally owned land (see fig. 1).

Figure 1: Number of Fires and Acres Burned, 1960-2002:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Although fire is a natural component of many ecosystems, and although 
humans have used fire for land and resource management purposes for 
thousands of years--such as creating improved pasture for animals and 
improved land for agriculture--fire can be unpredictable and 
potentially destructive. The potential destructiveness of fire is a 
particular concern for the growing number of communities on the fringe 
of wildland areas that are prone to fire. These communities create a 
wildland-urban interface, where houses and other infrastructure are in 
or near wildland fuels. Because fires can have dramatic social, 
economic, and environmental effects, land management agencies and 
federal land managers have sought to suppress fires for much of the 
twentieth century. In particular, large, intense fires in 1910 focused 
federal policy on suppression to prevent damage to ecological 
resources. Suppression, in combination with land management activities 
such as building roads and trails, grazing, and increasing development 
near public lands, has excluded fire from ecosystems and caused the 
uncharacteristic accumulation of vegetation in some forest and 
grassland ecosystems. In 2000, the Forest Service and BLM completed a 
national study of fuel conditions called the Coarse-Scale Analysis, 
which estimated that 182 million acres of the nation's land have an 
uncharacteristic buildup of fuels.[Footnote 5] The analysis produced 
categories of vegetation conditions ranked as low, medium, and high. 
The categories, called fire regime condition classes, represent the 
increasing accumulation and alteration of vegetation conditions and the 
potential for uncharacteristic wildland fire and its effects. (See app. 
II for a detailed description of the analysis.) In 2002, the agencies 
updated the analysis for the western states, estimating that almost 183 
million acres in western states alone have highly altered vegetation. 
Based on additional analysis, the agencies estimated that the amount of 
highly altered vegetation nationwide could vary from 90 to 200 million 
acres. In the 2002 analysis, the agencies estimated that 99 million 
acres of Forest Service and BLM lands in western states have highly 
altered vegetation. Refinement of the analysis for the nation is 
expected to be completed in 2005.

The National Fire Plan[Footnote 6] recognizes the need for restoring 
historic, or characteristic, vegetation conditions as an important way 
to reduce the risks of wildland fire and its effects. Under historic 
conditions, each vegetation type has a characteristic fire "regime," in 
which the vegetation and species have adapted to, and benefit from, the 
kind of fires that occur there. Fires that occur in a given fire regime 
display similar fire behavior, which refers to how frequently fires 
burn, how intensely they burn, and how large they grow. Furthermore, 
the effects of fires in different fire regimes can be more or less 
severe, depending on the types of fires that typically burn there. For 
example, ecosystems such as ponderosa pine forests benefit from and are 
sustained by the frequent occurrence of less intense fires to remove 
brush and small trees, which allows the large trees to survive and 
grow. The severity of effects of these fires on resources and the 
ecosystem are usually low or moderate. On the other hand, other 
ecosystems, such as lodgepole pine forests, rely on less frequent but 
more intense fires to remove all the trees and regenerate a new stand 
from seeds dropped by fire-adapted cones. These fires are typically 
intense, but they are characteristic of the ecosystem and are needed to 
sustain it.

In 2001 and 2002, as part of the National Fire Plan, the federal 
agencies, states, and others involved in wildland fire management 
developed a 10-year strategy and implementation plan to reduce the 
risks of wildland fire to communities and ecosystems. The strategy 
established four broad goals for wildland fire management: (1) 
improving fire prevention and suppression for those areas that need it; 
(2) reducing hazardous fuels, using both natural and managed fire or 
mechanical means; (3) restoring fire-adapted ecosystems, both by 
reducing fuels and rehabilitating burned areas; and (4) promoting 
community assistance to help conduct all these fire management 
activities. The implementation plan established specific measures for 
showing progress toward each of the goals.[Footnote 7]

Reducing hazardous fuels is one of the key tools for reducing the risks 
of wildland fires. Evidence from fires, such as that shown in figure 2, 
encourages managers and scientists to believe that areas treated to 
reduce vegetation can help to slow down the progress of wildland fires 
that occur; in addition, the evidence leads managers to believe that 
treated areas do not suffer as severe effects from burning as they 
would without the treatment.[Footnote 8] In addition, researchers have 
conducted modeling that indicates strategically placed fuel reduction 
areas can slow the spread of wildland fire across a landscape. 
Empirical confirmation is needed, although some forests, such as the 
forests in the Sierra Nevada, are working to apply these ideas in their 
fuel reduction treatments. Debate continues not only over the 
effectiveness of treatments, but over the extent and duration of 
treatments needed. These are areas that federal and university 
researchers continue to pursue through the Joint Fire Science 
Program[Footnote 9] and other research programs. Despite uncertainties 
related to the effectiveness of fuel reduction treatments, federal and 
other wildland fire managers believe that they know enough to proceed 
with treatments in particular areas while research is completed.

Figure 2: Effects of Wildland Fire in Treated and Untreated Areas 
Burned by Wildland Fire:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

The Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy requires that federal lands 
with burnable vegetation have a fire management plan. Of the 750 
million acres managed by the Departments of Agriculture and the 
Interior, the Forest Service and BLM manage 453 million acres of forest 
and rangeland. Although the Forest Service manages most of the federal 
forested land in the nation--about 192 million acres--about 55 million 
acres of BLM's 261 million acres are forested, while the remainder 
contain grass and shrublands.[Footnote 10] A fire management plan 
produced by each forest or BLM field office establishes the objectives, 
strategies, and resources needed to carry out the fire program for that 
office. The plan divides a forest or BLM field office into smaller fire 
management units for which fire management strategies, including 
suppression, prescribed fire, wildland fire use, and nonfire fuel 
treatments, are coordinated. The forests and BLM offices--in 
conjunction with other federal agencies--have been directed to complete 
updated fire plans in 2004.

The Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy also states that each 
forest and BLM field office should base its fire plan on its land 
management plan. Both the Forest Service and BLM manage their lands for 
multiple uses, including timber production, wildlife, recreation, and 
wilderness uses. Under the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), the 
law that directs the planning of national forests in the Forest 
Service, all of the 155 national forests have land and resource 
management plans for the lands they manage.[Footnote 11] Generally, 
these plans divide a forest into smaller management units with specific 
desired conditions to meet the agency's objectives for the different 
resources in that area. Similarly, BLM field offices, which are 
organized under state offices in 12 western states, develop resource 
management plans under the Federal Land Management Policy Act for the 
lands they manage. Similar to the national forests' plans, these plans 
identify the specific desired conditions that will meet the agency's 
objectives in that area. During the next 8 years, over half of the 
forests will be updating their land and resource management plans; BLM 
offices are also in the process of updating their resource management 
plans. Although many of the existing plans included little or no 
discussion of wildland fire and its effects, vegetation and fuel 
conditions, or the tools for managing wildland fire, the new plans will 
discuss these as appropriate. Currently, each agency's regulations 
require an environmental impact statement to accompany a plan 
revision.[Footnote 12]

To implement their land and resource management plans, the agencies 
carry out specific projects--addressing, for example, fuel reduction, 
timber sales, grazing, habitat improvement, and recreation. Because 
these projects may cause environmental effects, the agencies generally 
carry out either an environmental assessment, which is a less detailed 
analysis, or an environmental impact statement for their proposed 
projects. These analyses may consider different approaches for carrying 
out a project--called action alternatives. The agencies may also 
consider an alternative that involves taking no action--called the no-
action alternative. In developing their analyses, the agencies are 
required to disclose the potential environmental effects of 
alternatives.

Wildland Fires Have Wide-Ranging Effects on Environmental Resources and 
Ecosystems, Depending on a Range of Factors:

While they burn and afterward, wildland fires have dramatic effects on 
environmental resources and ecosystems, including the production of 
large amounts of smoke, the burning of trees and other vegetation, and 
the erosion of soil into streams and lakes. However, fires can also 
benefit resources by recycling soil nutrients, renewing vegetation 
growth, and adding material to streams that improves spawning habitat 
for fish. The 20 fires included in our survey highlighted the complex, 
wide-ranging--and sometimes contradictory--effects of fire on both 
individual resources, such as trees and streams, and ecosystems. For 
the 20 wildland fires in our survey, the land managers viewed the 
effects of the wildland fires as adverse, neutral, or beneficial, 
depending on a number of factors, including when the effects were 
described--in the short term or the long term--and the type and 
condition of the vegetation in the area that burned. The managers also 
reported that the 20 fires had effects across broad landscapes and that 
these effects varied in severity. The wildland fires in our survey 
burned over 158,000 acres of federal land in 10 states: Arizona, 
California, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, 
and Wyoming, with as few as 243 acres and as many as almost 50,000 
acres burning in one fire. (See app. III for the definition of severity 
used in our survey and app. IV for a detailed description of our survey 
results.):

Fire Effects on Individual Resources Vary in the Short and Long Term:

Fire effects can be considered as adverse, neutral, or beneficial 
depending, in part, on which resource is evaluated and the time frame 
over which the effects are considered. Fire effects are often described 
at three times: (1) immediately after the fire; (2) in the short term, 
which lasts from 1 to less than 10 years after the fire; and (3) in the 
long term, which lasts 10 years or more after a fire.[Footnote 13] 
Unlike fire damage to homes, ecological damages from fire are more 
difficult to determine immediately after the fire because burned areas 
look devastated, even when these conditions are part of the natural, 
fire-adapted cycle. For example, although large, intense fires can kill 
vegetation in the burned area and generate substantial smoke, some 
vegetation, such as aspen and native grasses, regrows quickly from root 
systems. Also, although fires can kill individual animals in the short 
term, in the long term, many species are attracted to burned areas 
because of increases in food sources from new plant growth, increased 
numbers of insects and other prey, or because of increased denning or 
nesting habitat that dead trees provide. Figure 3 shows, conceptually, 
the effects and recovery of vegetation after a high-severity wildland 
fire over the short and long term.

Figure 3: Conceptual Short-and Long-Term Effects on Vegetation After a 
High-Severity Wildland Fire:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

When we surveyed Forest Service and BLM officials about the effects of 
the 20 fires that occurred on federal lands, land managers consistently 
responded that fire effects would be less adverse in the long term than 
in the short term for each ecological resource, even though their 
responses differed across resources. Officials identified whether the 
fire had an adverse, neutral, or beneficial effect on each of several 
resources in both the short and long term. As shown in table 1, while 
many land managers in our survey indicated these fires would have 
adverse effects on individual resources in the short term, fewer 
responded that the effects would be adverse in the long term. A 
discussion of the effects on each of the individual resources follows 
the table.

Table 1: Assessment of Overall Effects on Individual Resources in the 
Short and Long Term:

Air: Resource and time period: Short term; 
Beneficial: 1; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 7; 
Adverse: 9; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 3.

Air: Resource and time period: Long term; 
Beneficial: 1; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 1; 
Adverse: 2; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 16.

Threatened and endangered species habitat: Resource and time period: 
Short term; 
Beneficial: 4; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 3; 
Adverse: 3; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 10.

Threatened and endangered species habitat: Resource and time period: 
Long term; 
Beneficial: 3; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 8; 
Adverse: 1; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 8.

Other species' habitat: Resource and time period: Short term; 
Beneficial: 5; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 5; 
Adverse: 10; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 0.

Other species' habitat: Resource and time period: Long term; 
Beneficial: 9; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 6; 
Adverse: 4; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 1.

Soil: Resource and time period: Short term; 
Beneficial: 5; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 5; 
Adverse: 10; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 0.

Soil: Resource and time period: Long term; 
Beneficial: 4; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 9; 
Adverse: 7; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 0.

Vegetation: Resource and time period: Short term; 
Beneficial: 10; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 0; 
Adverse: 10; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 0.

Vegetation: Resource and time period: Long term; 
Beneficial: 8; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 4; 
Adverse: 6; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 2.

Water and watersheds: Resource and time period: Short term; 
Beneficial: 11; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 0; 
Adverse: 9; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 0.

Water and watersheds: Resource and time period: Long term; 
Beneficial: 6; 
Neither beneficial nor adverse: 9; 
Adverse: 5; 
No basis to judge, not applicable, or not answered: 0.

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM land managers.

Notes: Because the officials provided answers about the effects of a 
fire on each resource, the columns do not add to 20.

The responses are based on the opinions of land managers.

[End of table] 

Effects on air: Although officials reported that nine fires in our 
sample had adverse short-term effects on the air, only two expected 
long-term adverse effects on air quality, while many did not indicate 
what long-term effects these fires had on the air. For example, 
although the Pony Express II fire in Nevada released an estimated 54 
tons of particulate matter into the air when it burned, BLM officials 
did not expect any long-term effects from this fire on air quality 
because the burned area is far from homes or towns and there are no 
nearby sources of air pollution that might have a cumulative effect.

Effects on threatened and endangered species habitat: Agency officials 
reported that 10 of the fires in our sample had no identifiable effect 
on threatened and endangered species habitat in the short term. 
Similarly, the majority of the fires had either no identifiable long-
term effect on the habitat of these species or had a neutral effect. 
Eight threatened and endangered species inhabited the areas covered by 
5 fires in our sample, including the Canada lynx and the Northern 
spotted owl. (See table 10 in app. IV.) Officials indicated that 
although none of the fires in our sample posed a threat to the survival 
and recovery of a threatened or endangered species population in the 
short term, these 5 fires had at least some local impact on a 
threatened or endangered species or its habitat. Fires have complex 
effects within and among populations of endangered species because 
their effects on habitat can both negatively and positively influence 
their chances of survival. For example, a nearly 2,500 acre fire in 
Louisiana's Kisatchie National Forest had a negative effect on the red-
cockaded woodpecker's nesting habitat, while improving its foraging 
habitat by thinning vegetation--a factor the Forest Service official 
reported is likely to aid in its recovery. During site visits, Forest 
Service officials in Montana told us that the effect of a wildland fire 
on endangered fish, such as the bull trout, depends more on whether the 
affected streams are contiguous to other streams than on the fire 
itself. Locally, some fish may be killed, but if streams are well 
connected, other fish can find refuge by migrating away until the fire 
is over and then returning to recolonize burned areas. On the other 
hand, isolated fish populations living in an environment without these 
critical stream linkages are likely to be very vulnerable to fire. For 
example, in Arizona after the Aspen fire in 2003, the Fish and Wildlife 
Service removed the endangered fish, the Gila chub, from isolated 
reaches of Sabino Creek near Tucson to prevent it from being killed by 
potential runoff from burned lands.

Effects on other species' habitats: Agency officials reported that 10 
fires had adverse effects on other species' habitat in the short term, 
while 5 fires had beneficial effects. In some cases, officials 
indicated that the loss of vegetation caused a loss of cover and 
habitat for species such as the sage grouse, which is a species that 
concerns land managers. However, officials stated that fires had 
beneficial effects on grasses by increasing their productivity, in turn 
providing forage for grazing animals. In the long term, officials 
reported that 9 fires had a beneficial effect on species' habitat, 
while 6 had neutral effects. For example, officials stated that 
although short-term effects may be adverse, the return to a historic 
fire regime increased the diversity of vegetation and would ultimately 
help species like the snowshoe hare.

Effects on soil: While officials reported that 10 fires had adverse 
effects on soil in the short term, they reported that 9 fires had 
neutral effects in the long term. For example, officials indicated that 
the short-term loss of vegetation cover after the Horse Creek fire 
would cause soil erosion and loss. In the long term, officials reported 
that most effects on soil would diminish, although an official reported 
that soil erosion after the Pony Express II fire would decrease soil 
productivity in intensely burned areas, and another official indicated 
that soil productivity would be increased because of increased organic 
matter released in the Sheep Mountain fire.

Effects on vegetation: Officials reported that, in the short term, 10 
fires had beneficial effects on vegetation, while 10 fires had adverse 
effects. For example, BLM officials described the mix of burned and 
unburned areas within the perimeter of the Sheep Mountain fire in 
Wyoming as beneficial because it created a mosaic of vegetation types 
of different ages, with more grasses growing in burned areas. After 
another fire, however, officials stated that the fire had removed 
native vegetation and allowed the spread of cheat grass. In the long 
term, officials viewed 8 fires as having beneficial effects, while 6 
had adverse effects. For example, officials described the Missionary 
Ridge fire as helping to return the long-term balance of different 
vegetation. Officials indicated that other fires would increase the 
chance of invasive species to spread.

Effects on watersheds: Nine of the fires in our sample had adverse 
effects on water and watersheds in the short term, while 11 had 
beneficial effects. In the long term, officials reported that 9 fires 
will have neutral effects and 5 fires will likely cause adverse effects 
to water and watersheds. Of the 20 fires, 3 severely burned 10 
watersheds that supply domestic water to municipalities or towns, and 
in two cases, officials said the fires had a negative effect on water 
quality that lasted from 3 to 5 years. In areas burned by 8 fires, 
floods, debris flows, or landslides occurred within the fire perimeter, 
yet the long-term effects of fire on water and watersheds are expected 
to be more neutral as these effects subside. For example, although the 
Horse Creek fire in Oregon resulted in a short-term increase in the 
sediment in stream channels, BLM officials reported that the 
sedimentation will decline as vegetation recovers and sediment 
deposited into the channels will be moved downstream by natural stream 
flows in the long term.

Effects of Wildland Fire Vary Depending on Topography, Climate and 
Weather, and Vegetation Conditions:

Researchers and land managers describe fire effects using levels of 
severity: low severity, moderate severity, and high severity. (See app. 
III for the definition of severity used in our survey.)[Footnote 14] 
The severity of effects depends on the intensity of the fire--the 
amount of heat released in a fire--and its duration in relation to the 
historic fire regime. The intensity of a fire depends on its 
topography, climate and weather, and vegetation or fuels. First, 
topography includes locally unique site properties, such as the slope 
of the terrain, the direction in which the ground slopes, and the soil 
moisture, each of which affect how intensely a fire burns. For example, 
fires burn faster and more intensely on steep slopes, which allow a 
fire to move uphill driven by winds, and on south-facing slopes, which 
are drier than north-facing slopes. Second, climate and seasonal 
weather conditions such as drought cycles and high winds also determine 
how a fire will burn and how severe the effects of burning will be. 
Climate and weather also determine the extent to which storms occur 
after a fire; stronger and more frequent storms can result in increased 
erosion and landslides. Finally, the type and condition of vegetation 
in an area determines how much "fuel" is available to burn and thus how 
intense a fire will be and how severe its effects may be. For example, 
rangelands have less vegetation, and therefore lower amounts of fuel to 
burn, than forested areas. Furthermore, areas with accumulated 
vegetation have more fuels to burn than they would under more natural 
conditions.

Whether or not the environmental effects of a wildland fire are 
considered as adverse, neutral, or beneficial depends on the degree to 
which vegetation conditions have been changed from the historic fire 
regime in an area. For example, a fire that burns in a high-elevation 
forest filled with spruce and fir trees--a fire regime that 
historically has fewer but more intense fires, with more severe 
effects--is less likely to have adverse effects to the environment and 
that ecosystem than an uncharacteristically intense wildfire that burns 
in an ecosystem in which frequent, low-intensity fires occurred 
historically, such as ponderosa pine. Forest Service and BLM scientists 
and land managers describe areas in which vegetation has accumulated 
abnormally or has been altered as having uncharacteristic vegetation 
and fuel conditions and areas in which vegetation has accumulated at 
normal levels or not been altered as having characteristic vegetation 
and fuel conditions. Likewise, they describe fires that are similar to 
those that occurred under an area's historic fire regime as 
characteristic and those that are not similar to the historic fire 
regime as uncharacteristic. Characteristic fires tend to have effects 
on the environment and ecosystems that are appropriately severe for 
that vegetation type and fire regime, and which are therefore not 
considered negative, whereas uncharacteristic fires usually have 
unexpectedly severe environmental effects, which are often considered 
negative. Of the 20 fires included in our survey, 10 burned with 
predominantly characteristic effects, 3 burned with a mix of 
characteristic and uncharacteristic effects, and 7 burned with 
predominantly uncharacteristic effects. Table 2 shows that of the 10 
fires with predominantly characteristic effects, 6 occurred in areas in 
which vegetation conditions experienced low levels of alteration or 
accumulation, and the remaining 4 occurred in areas with moderate 
levels of vegetation alteration or accumulation. Fires that resulted in 
both mixed and uncharacteristic effects occurred only in areas in which 
vegetation conditions were moderately or highly altered or accumulated 
(see table 2).

Table 2: Description of Characteristic and Uncharacteristic Fire 
Effects and Vegetation Conditions:

Fire: Sheep Mountain (Wyoming); 
Federal acres burned: 21,370; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Low; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Burgdorf Junction (Idaho); 
Federal acres burned: 17,207; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Low; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Elko 13/#3 (Nevada); 
Federal acres burned: 12,544; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Medium; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Abert (Oregon); 
Federal acres burned: 10,100; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Medium; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Stables (California); 
Federal acres burned: 4,162; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Low; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Horse Creek (Oregon); 
Federal acres burned: 1,839; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Low; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Pony Express II (Nevada); 
Federal acres burned: 1,806; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Low; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Crusoe (Nevada); 
Federal acres burned: 1,386; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Low; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Elk Mountain (Montana); 
Federal acres burned: 667; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Medium; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Y-Mountain (Utah); 
Federal acres burned: 437; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Medium; 
Characteristic.

Fire: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Federal acres burned: 49,990; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: High; 
Mixed.

Fire: Rough Diamonds (Idaho); 
Federal acres burned: 7,268; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Medium; 
Mixed.

Fire: Springer (Arizona); 
Federal acres burned: 666; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Medium; 
Mixed.

Fire: Crimson Clover (Idaho); 
Federal acres burned: 14,466; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Medium; 
Uncharacteristic.

Fire: Boulder Hills (Montana); 
Federal acres burned: 5,400; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: High; 
Uncharacteristic.

Fire: Cow Hollow (Oregon); 
Federal acres burned: 3,022; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: High; 
Uncharacteristic.

Fire: Longleaf Vista (Louisiana); 
Federal acres burned: 2,497; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: High; 
Uncharacteristic.

Fire: Tipton Ranch (Nevada); 
Federal acres burned: 2,025; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: High; 
Uncharacteristic.

Fire: Hyampom (California); 
Federal acres burned: 1,053; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: High; 
Uncharacteristic.

Fire: Horse (Idaho); 
Federal acres burned: 243; 
Vegetation conditions, amount of alteration: Medium; 
Uncharacteristic.

Total acres; 
Federal acres burned: 158,148. 

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM land managers.

Notes: This sample cannot be projected to all wildland fires.

The responses are based on the opinions of land managers.

[End of table]

As table 2 shows, the third largest fire in our sample, the Burgdorf 
Junction fire in Idaho, had characteristic effects. For this reason, 
Forest Service officials considered the majority of the effects from 
this fire to be beneficial, even though the fire burned more than 
17,000 acres of federal land, including areas that provided habitat for 
several threatened and endangered species. Overall, the officials 
considered the fire effects to support processes for maintaining the 
ecosystem, which includes lodgepole pine and Douglas fir forests. For 
example, officials stated that the debris flows from the fire 
introduced gravel into streams, providing new spawning grounds for 
fish. In addition, officials stated that burned areas of the lodgepole 
forest were turned into more open stands of brush and grasses, 
improving gray wolf and lynx habitat.

Of the three fires that officials identified as having a mix of 
characteristic and uncharacteristic effects, one--the Missionary Ridge 
fire in Colorado--was the largest fire included in our sample. Forest 
Service officials noted that the adverse effects of the fire in the 
short term included numerous floods and debris flows, which affected 
the water quality of streams supplying water to surrounding 
municipalities. They also indicated that in areas where the fire burned 
uncharacteristically, long-term adverse effects on streams included 
destabilized banks and loss of riparian area. On the other hand, the 
officials noted that in areas where the fire burned characteristically, 
changes to the streambed and riparian areas would not be adverse over 
the long term.

Of the seven fires with uncharacteristic effects, Forest Service 
officials identified the smallest fire in our sample--the Horse fire of 
243 acres--as having adverse effects on resources. A Forest Service 
official reported that this fire in Idaho's Salmon-Challis National 
Forest had immediate adverse effects on the vegetation because of the 
size of the severely burned area, although he believed that in the long 
term, fire-killed trees might benefit the Canada lynx by providing 
denning areas. Similarly, BLM officials viewed the 2,025-acre Tipton 
Ranch fire in Nevada as having adverse effects on vegetation because 
the fire exacerbated the conversion of native plant species such as 
grass and sage brush to invasive grasses such as cheat grass. Our 
survey showed that the number of acres vulnerable to population by 
noxious and invasive plant species such as cheat grass--which competes 
with native vegetation and alters the historic fire regime--after the 
20 fires increased from about 32,130 acres to about 58,800 acres (83 
percent). Several officials raised concerns about the spread of such 
invasive species as cheat grass into sagebrush-grass and pinyon-juniper 
vegetation types because it is highly flammable, and areas dominated by 
it may burn frequently. More frequent fires in such ecosystems may 
eliminate the native plants such as sage brush, which is important 
habitat for sage grouse.

Fires Have Broad Landscape Effects:

In addition to its effects on individual resources such as soil, water, 
and air, fire creates landscape patterns to the extent that it burns 
large areas and leaves other areas lightly burned or unburned. As shown 
in figure 4, landscapes are geographic areas of varying sizes, 
encompassing tens of thousands of acres or more, that may contain 
smaller landscapes and interacting and interconnected ecosystems that 
are defined by geological, soil, climate, and other physical factors. 
Landscapes are separated by natural features, including watersheds, 
such as the example in figure 4 from the Interior Columbia Basin, and 
encompass different stands of trees and, in some ecosystems, patches of 
open areas among the stands of trees. Landscapes may include a mix of 
government and private lands and may cross state boundaries.

Figure 4: Relationship of Ecosystem and Landscape Levels:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

The landscape effects of fire include the patterns, or patches, of 
vegetation that are burned with varying degrees of severity, including 
some that are not burned at all. Under natural conditions, when fires 
burn some areas severely and other areas lightly or not at all, they 
create irregularly sized openings in vegetation layers, changing the 
size, shape, and age of the vegetation in those patches. These 
landscape effects, which reflect the degree of environmental change 
from burning and affect other environmental resources accordingly, can 
be described as being of low, moderate, or high severity. Under natural 
conditions, fires with low-severity effects are those that kill the 
least amount of vegetation; some burned areas may appear much like the 
unburned forest. Fires with moderate-severity effects are those in 
which vegetation is killed but some trees remain standing; the 
regeneration that occurs after the fire results in stands of trees of 
different ages. Fires with high-severity effects are those in which 
most of the trees and vegetation are killed over large areas, leaving 
open areas in which the tree stands that regenerate will be the same 
age. Ecosystems in which vegetation and fire are characteristic, or 
fire-adapted, are resilient, and the landscape reflects the functioning 
of interdependent plant and animal communities. In ecosystems in which 
vegetation and fire are uncharacteristic, fire severity can exceed the 
capacity of the ecosystem to regenerate, and the landscape reflects 
changes to the plant and animal communities that used to exist there.

Figure 5 shows the range of burn severity patterns attributed to our 
sample of 20 fires. Of the 7 fires with uncharacteristic effects in our 
survey, the most frequent reason officials cited for a fire to be 
considered uncharacteristic was not the size of the fire, but the size 
of the patches the fire had burned severely. The fires demonstrate a 
wide variety of burn severity patterns within two extremes. While 
Wyoming's Sheep Mountain fire severely burned 100 percent of the 
federal lands within its perimeter, all of the federal acreage burned 
by Oregon's Abert fire burned at low severity.

Figure 5: Acres of Vegetation Burned Lightly, Moderately, and Severely 
in 20 Sample Fires:

[See PDF for image]

[A] Percentages may not add to 100 because of rounding.

[B] Percentages do not add to 100 because the method used to measure 
burn severity did not always distinguish unburned acres. Acres in the 
fire perimeter include only federal acres.

[C] Survey respondent indicated these values are unknown.

[End of figure]

Forest Service and BLM Do Not Gather Comprehensive Information on the 
Varied Effects of Wildland Fires on Ecosystems and Landscapes:

Although the National Fire Plan established a goal of restoring forest 
and rangeland ecosystems to conditions that are more fire-adapted, and 
therefore more resilient to fire, land managers do not have 
comprehensive data on the broad landscape effects of wildland fire to 
help them monitor these effects over time. While the Forest Service and 
BLM gather information on the severity of environmental effects from 
individual wildland fires, they do not gather data that captures the 
long-term severity of fires across landscapes. Through emergency 
stabilization programs, the forests and BLM field offices gather 
information on the effects on soils and watersheds to estimate the 
likelihood that soil disturbances caused by individual fires will 
result in flooding and landslides. However, while the agencies' data 
collection efforts include fire histories--that is, the occurrence, 
location, and size of fires--they do not have a monitoring plan to 
gather landscape data across fires and they do not yet consistently map 
the long-term, landscape-level severity of wildland fires. This data 
would help the agencies to assess whether, over time, fires in forest 
and rangeland ecosystems are burning with more or less severe effects 
and whether they are being restored to more resilient, or fire-adapted, 
conditions.

Forest Service and BLM Collect Data on the Environmental Effects of 
Individual Fires to Help Them Restore and Rehabilitate Burned Lands:

Although the Forest Service and BLM are generally not required to 
gather environmental data on the effects of wildland fires, the 
agencies' field offices do collect data that indicate the potential for 
flooding, erosion, and landslides to occur in the short term after a 
fire for the purpose of treating areas that need emergency 
stabilization. Both the Forest Service and BLM use multidisciplinary 
teams of experts, such as ecologists and soil scientists, to gather and 
review data on individual fires that have altered conditions enough to 
warrant the emergency stabilization. These teams--called Burned Area 
Emergency Response (BAER) teams by the Forest Service and Emergency 
Stabilization and Rehabilitation (ESR) teams by BLM--gather data on 
vegetation, soils, and stream channels and evaluate burn severity and 
erosion hazard potential in areas affected by fire. Both agencies use 
this evaluation process to assess the potential emergency and identify 
appropriate treatments to stabilize areas and to protect homes and 
other values at risk, such as roads. The data are reported and 
maintained in fire-specific files in the forest and BLM field offices.

Although the BAER and ESR reports do not address the long-term effects 
of fires, the Forest Service and BLM generally collect more extensive 
data on the effects of large fires affecting areas where they plan to 
conduct rehabilitation or restoration work.[Footnote 15] The Forest 
Service uses a variety of funds, including funds raised from salvaging 
dead and damaged trees, to pay for rehabilitation work. When the forest 
staff identify fire-damaged areas that they wish to rehabilitate, they 
gather data on environmental resources for the purpose of developing an 
environmental assessment or environmental impact statement for a 
salvage sale and associated rehabilitation or restoration projects. For 
example, the staff at Bitterroot and Sequoia National Forests 
determined that they would conduct rehabilitation projects for very 
large fires that occurred on their lands in 2000--the Bitterroot fires 
and the McNally fire. In the case of the Bitterroot fires, the forest 
staff collected extensive data, including detailed information on soil 
and watershed characteristics, vegetation, wildlife and wildlife 
habitat, and noxious weeds. During and after the McNally fire in 
central California, the Sequoia National Forest staff gathered similar 
data on the fire's effects and measured the smoke output from the fire 
and its effect on air quality. Because the rehabilitation of rangelands 
that have burned often involves seeding the burned sites with fast-
growing grasses to retain soils and forage for wildlife, BLM receives 
funding to pay for such work. Field office staff collect data on these 
rehabilitation needs as part of their rehabilitation efforts; the data 
collected under this program includes data on topography, soils, native 
and non-native plants, wildlife habitat, and threatened and endangered 
species that inhabit the project area.

Furthermore, some forest and BLM staff, after years in which numerous 
fires have occurred, have developed special reports on the effects of 
the different fires across the region. For example, the Intermountain 
and Northern Regions of the Forest Service[Footnote 16] assessed the 
extent and effects of the large wildland fires these areas experienced 
during 2000. They collected data on the (1) number of air quality 
advisories to communities affected by the many fires involved; (2) 
flooding and sediment in streams with native fish species, such as 
cutthroat and bull trout; and (3) adverse effects to sage grouse 
habitat. In addition, after a number of fires in 1999 burned about 1.7 
million acres in portions of four states that comprise the Great Basin-
-Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah--BLM issued[Footnote 17] a general 
report on the fires' combined effects on this large geographic area. As 
part of this effort, BLM assessed the role wildland fire has played 
over time in the Great Basin--changing some healthy rangeland 
ecosystems populated by native plants into systems dominated by annual 
weeds, such as cheatgrass. According to the report, because this annual 
grass provides little or no cover or food for wildlife, sage grouse 
populations had decreased by more than one-third, a factor in the 
grouse's possible consideration for listing as a threatened and 
endangered species.

Agencies' Data Collection Does Not Address Long-Term Landscape Severity 
of Wildland Fire Effects:

Over the long term, as the National Fire Plan and its activities are 
implemented, the Forest Service and BLM will need landscape data on 
wildland fire effects, including fire severity, to monitor whether they 
are restoring and maintaining fire-adapted ecosystems. Because wildland 
fires and the severity of their effects vary across different 
landscapes and ecosystems, land managers and scientists need data on 
the severity of effects to understand whether the severity of fires is 
changing, and therefore whether vegetation conditions need to be 
managed differently. A monitoring plan would provide the means for 
gathering consistent and comprehensive data over the long term on fire 
trends and severity. The agencies have started to develop systems and 
methods to gather the needed data including: (1) vegetation data, (2) 
historical fire and severity data, and (3) current severity data. 
However, they do not yet have the full capability to gather and use 
these data. When these data are integrated and assessed, they will 
provide the Forest Service and BLM with information on the historical 
fire regime that occurred in a given area and the expected fire 
severity. With such data, the agencies will have a baseline to 
determine whether fire severity is changing because of vegetation and 
fuel conditions.

While the Forest Service and BLM use several different methods to 
gather information on vegetation conditions, they are working to 
develop a system of protocols and procedures to gather consistent 
nationwide data. Satellite images are currently used to provide data 
for individual forests and BLM offices to use in assessing their 
vegetation conditions. However, the Forest Service and BLM, as part of 
an interagency effort to gather consistent national data on vegetation 
conditions and related fuel conditions, are developing a database and 
related modeling tools called LANDFIRE to gather satellite data, 
interpret it, and compare and validate the data with data from actual 
sites on the ground. Satellite images capture data on thousands of 
acres or more, providing a landscape-level view of the resources for 
land managers. (See app. V for a discussion of the recording and use of 
satellite data.) When it is completed, LANDFIRE is expected to provide 
land management agencies with maps of their vegetation that, when 
combined with data on the physical conditions of the same areas, will 
show the natural vegetation cover type that should exist on the areas. 
The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior funded the 
implementation of the system in 2004 and expect it to be completed for 
western states in 2006, for eastern states in 2008, and for the entire 
nation in 2009. In the interim, the agencies will use data that are 
already available.

In addition to vegetation data, historical fire and severity data are 
important for the agencies to understand the landscape severity of 
current fires. While the national forest and BLM field office staff 
collect historical fire data, including the occurrence, location, and 
size of wildland fires that have burned across a landscape, they do not 
consistently collect this data or data on the severity of effects for 
individual fires. Of the 13 forests and BLM offices we visited during 
our review, most were collecting severity data for large fires, but 
only one office had these data in a geographic information system 
database. A national database of fire history and severity data would 
help the agencies identify and monitor the actual effects of fire on 
vegetation and ecosystem conditions. While the Wildland Fire Leadership 
Council adopted a monitoring framework that includes fire severity in 
May 2004, it has not yet been implemented. The agencies are currently 
developing cost estimates and specific plans for implementing the 
framework.

Finally, while the forest and BLM field offices gather some data on 
severity of fires that burn on their lands, the agencies do not 
consistently collect data on burn severity that reflect the long-term 
effects of fires. The agencies use a mix of ground, aerial, and 
satellite data to measure the burn severity of different fires; 
however, the satellite data that they typically gather are better 
suited to show the short-term effects of wildland fire. The Forest 
Service and BLM generally compile satellite images taken a year before 
the fire and immediately after it to help them estimate the emergency 
stabilization needs of the area. In contrast, another approach to 
measuring severity involves comparing one satellite image taken 
immediately before a fire and another about a year after to more 
accurately estimate the long-term ecological effects of the fire. This 
approach, developed by the National Park Service in an effort to 
measure the long-term effects of fire, includes factors that affect the 
recovery of an area over the long term, such as the number of seeds 
that remain in the soil, the proximity of seed sources from unburned 
areas, slope, soil moisture, and the amount of erosion that may occur. 
Although this approach has been used successfully on Park Service lands 
and by some forests and BLM offices, its use in evaluating Forest 
Service and BLM lands has not been widely tested. One of the 
applications that is still being developed and tested is the ability to 
update vegetation maps from the severity maps. This application could 
be useful in updating vegetation maps, including those that will be 
created by the LANDFIRE system once it is completed. If it is 
implemented as planned, LANDFIRE's vegetation maps will be available to 
the forests and BLM offices about every 5 years. According to the 
National Park Service, this approach has been used to update some of 
the parks' vegetation maps, thereby maintaining their usefulness in 
tracking progress in managing vegetation conditions and planning 
management activities.

The Forest Service and BLM Do Not Systematically Assess the Risks to 
Environmental Resources and Ecosystems to Target and Conduct Fuel 
Reduction Activities:

Although the National Fire Plan identifies the need to reduce the risk 
of environmental and ecosystem effects from wildland fires by targeting 
fuel reduction activities to the areas that face the greatest potential 
losses, the Forest Service and BLM do not systematically assess the 
risks to resources and ecosystems for the purpose of targeting fuel 
reduction projects. Because wildland fires affect both large landscapes 
and individual resources at specific sites, it is important to assess 
risk at both the broad landscape level and the more specific project-
planning level. At the landscape level, the Forest Service and BLM do 
not have a common framework that includes the three elements for 
assessing risks: hazard, risk, and values. At the project level, 
although the agencies have recognized the need to better analyze the 
relative risks of undertaking fuel reduction activities versus not 
doing so, they do not have a systematic approach to assess these risks. 
Because they lack a systematic risk-based approach for targeting their 
fuel reduction projects across a landscape and within a project area, 
the agencies cannot ensure that they are reducing fuels in areas of 
highest risk to environmental resources and ecosystems.

A Risk Assessment Framework Would Systematically Analyze Hazard, Risk, 
and Values:

In general, risk assessment is a process for evaluating a natural 
hazard, such as wildland fire, as well as the probability of the 
hazardous event occurring and the consequences or potential losses that 
would result if the event did occur. According to the National Academy 
of Public Administration, a systematic approach to risk assessment 
involves three elements:

Hazard: A hazard is the potential event, such as a wildland fire, 
hurricane, or earthquake, and the conditions that cause it. In the case 
of wildland fire, both the fuel conditions that exist and the fire 
itself are the hazard. According to scientists and land managers, the 
increased vegetation in different ecosystems around the country has 
become more continuous and dense, resulting in larger fires that burn 
more intensely. For example, the Tyee fire burned 140,000 acres in 
Washington in 1994, in part because excess vegetation had grown into 
areas that, under natural conditions, would have less vegetation to act 
as fuel for the fire.

Risk: Risk is the probability that an event such as a wildland fire 
will occur. By mapping the number and location of fires, scientists 
have discovered that some areas are more prone to fires than others. 
For example, Florida and the western states are more likely to 
experience wildland fire than the states along the East Coast and in 
the Midwest. Wildland fire ignites either because of lightning strikes, 
which occur along storm paths and prominent landscape features, such as 
mountain ridges, or because of human activities, such as camping, 
logging, agricultural burning, and careless smoking.

Values: In general, values are the things that might be lost or damaged 
because of a hazard. In the case of wildland fire, social values that 
might be lost include the lives of both civilians and firefighters, 
cultural and historical resources, and artifacts and sacred sites. 
Economic values that might be lost include property and other 
infrastructure, resources such as timber and water, and recreation and 
tourism opportunities. In the case of environmental values, however, 
wildland fire can both damage and improve different environmental 
resources and ecosystems. The values that might be affected include 
ecosystems, species and their habitat, air and water quality, and soil 
and vegetation.

To prioritize areas needing fuel reduction, all three elements--hazard, 
risk, and value--need to be considered and ranked because, for example, 
an area with high vegetation hazard may or may not be in an area where 
fires are likely to occur, making it a lower priority for treatment. 
Furthermore, a high hazard area may not be close to something of value 
that would be lost or damaged in a fire, also making it a lower 
priority for treatment. The National Fire Plan calls for the Forest 
Service and BLM to collaborate with state, local, and tribal entities 
in making decisions about what specific areas are in need of fuel 
reduction treatment. An assessment of hazard, risk, and values can form 
the basis for informing this collaborative approach.

According to the National Academy of Sciences' National Research 
Council, a risk assessment supports decisions that need to be 
made.[Footnote 18] For this reason, a framework for assessing the risks 
of effects from wildland fires would also identify the types of 
decisions that need to be made at different organizational levels--the 
national, landscape, and project levels--and the risk information 
required to make the decisions. For example, in the case of fuel 
reduction activities, the types of decisions that need to be made at 
the national level include how many resources to allocate per year to 
reduce risk. Landscape-level decisions include determining which parts 
of the landscape are at the greatest risk of wildland fire and its 
potential effects. Project-level decisions include making tradeoffs 
among alternatives and their different effects.

Forest Service and BLM Lack a Framework for Assessing Risks to 
Ecosystems Across Landscapes to Target Fuel Reduction Activities:

The Forest Service and BLM have not adopted a framework to 
systematically assess the risks of environmental effects of fires to 
support their fuel reduction efforts. Without addressing the three 
elements of a risk assessment--hazard, risk, and value--the agencies do 
not have a systematic way to target their fuel reduction activities 
across a landscape. The Forest Service and BLM nationwide assessment of 
vegetation, or fuel, conditions, conducted in 2000 and updated in 2002, 
addressed only one element of a risk assessment--hazard. Because of the 
need to prioritize their fuel reduction efforts, some Forest Service 
and BLM field offices have conducted assessments that include one or 
more elements of a risk assessment. However, these efforts are 
informal, incomplete or uncoordinated and therefore do not 
systematically address the need to identify and reduce ecosystem risks.

Nationwide Assessment of Vegetation Conditions Considered Only Hazard 
Information, Not Risks and Values:

In 2002, the Forest Service and BLM updated the national assessment of 
fuel conditions that estimated that about 99 million acres of the 
agencies' land in 11 western states were highly altered from historic 
vegetation conditions.[Footnote 19] While the assessment also 
identified and collected data on fire occurrence, a factor in 
determining the probability that a fire will occur, the researchers did 
not include these risk data in the assessment because they were 
incomplete or inconsistent. In addition, although the assessment 
indicated which ecosystems might burn uncharacteristically and 
experience uncharacteristically severe effects from fire, it did not 
consider other values at risk, such as threatened and endangered 
species habitat that might be damaged or lost. A complete risk 
assessment--one that includes risk and values--could give national 
leaders a better idea of (1) the amount of fuel reduction that needs to 
be done per year to reduce the risks of wildland fires at the national 
level and (2) the amount of funding that needs to be allocated to 
reduce risks. For example, in 2002, a group of researchers involved in 
developing the national assessment conducted an independent study of 
options for reducing risks of effects from wildland fire through fuel 
reduction projects across landscapes and nationally.[Footnote 20] The 
study, which included information on the probability of fire occurring 
and the values at risk, concluded that reducing risks would require 
more work and funding than was allocated in 2002. While the study 
results have not been officially confirmed by the multiple agencies and 
organizations involved in conducting fuel reduction activities, it is 
an example of the risk-based approach needed to target fuel reduction 
activities and funding.

In late 2003, recognizing the need for some direction in how to conduct 
risk assessments, the Forest Service and BLM issued guidance in 
conjunction with the National Association of State Foresters. The 
guidance states that there are a number of valid assessment processes 
available for the agencies to use, including one approach that involves 
mapping data on four factors: (1) fire occurrence, (2) hazard, (3) 
values to be protected, and (4) protection capabilities. This guidance, 
however, focuses on communities and does not discuss how the risks to 
the environmental resources and ecosystems that the agencies are 
responsible for managing are to be assessed. It is important that the 
risks to environmental resources and ecosystems be assessed in 
considering fuel reduction across landscapes because different 
approaches are needed to manage environmental resources and ecosystems 
in different fire regimes. For example, it can be more difficult to 
treat forests and rangelands that burn with low frequency and high 
intensity, such as lodgepole pine forests, as opposed to areas that 
burn with high frequency and low intensity, such as ponderosa pine 
forests.

The Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station has developed a 
modeling protocol to assess the risks, as well as the benefits, of fire 
by considering three factors: (1) the probability of fire occurrence; 
(2) the expected severity of a fire; and (3) the ecological, social, 
and economic value ascribed to an area.[Footnote 21] Other agencies 
have developed risk assessment frameworks, tailored to their particular 
needs, that include hazard, risk, and values and identify the 
organizational levels that should conduct the risk assessment. For 
example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides funding to 
state and local governments for hazard mitigation on the basis of their 
assessment of (1) the natural hazard and the probability of future 
hazardous events, (2) state and local vulnerability to the hazards, and 
(3) the potential losses from the hazardous event. In addition, the 
Environmental Protection Agency has developed an ecological risk 
assessment framework that defines the values at risk on the basis of 
desired environmental conditions and can be applied at different 
organizational levels depending on the risk problem.

Some Forest Service and BLM Offices Have Conducted Independent Risk 
Assessments:

To identify the areas with the highest levels of risk at the landscape 
level, some forests and BLM field offices, in conjunction with state 
and local governments, have applied their own approaches to assessing 
fuel conditions and risks. We reviewed fire planning processes and 
documents at 13 forest and BLM offices and found that several offices 
had applied risk assessment frameworks that they had either developed 
themselves or contributed to developing. Table 3 shows the forest and 
BLM offices that we visited and describes the type of assessment they 
conducted, including the elements of a risk assessment that were 
addressed.

Table 3: Forest Service and BLM Office Assessments and the Risk 
Elements Addressed:

National forest: Arapaho-Roosevelt (Region 2, Colorado); 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Joint effort with state 
and other federal agencies included hazard, risk, and communities at 
risk. Subsequent land management plan included environmental values, 
such as threatened and endangered species and old-growth vegetation.

National forest: Pike San Isabel (Region 2, Colorado); 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Joint effort with state 
and other federal agencies included hazard, risk, and communities at 
risk. Land management plan is being revised starting in 2004 and will 
include environmental values such as threatened and endangered species 
and watersheds.

National forest: Bitterroot (Region 1, Montana); 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Region conducted an 
assessment of hazard, risk, and values, including environmental values 
such as threatened and endangered species, water quality, air quality, 
and soil condition. The forest's land management plan is being revised, 
and the forest will add some of this information.

National forest: Sequoia (Region 5, California); 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Joint effort with other 
forests and federal agencies included hazard, risk, and communities at 
risk. Data on environmental values have been collected.

National forest: Wenatchee (Region 6, Washington); 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: An assessment of fire 
regime and vegetation conditions began in 2004.

National forest: Payette (Region 4, Idaho); 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Joint effort with two 
other forests included hazard and risk. Another assessment identified 
watersheds of concern.

National forest: Coronado (Region 3, Arizona); 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Assessment of fire regime 
and vegetation conditions began in 2004.

BLM office: Colorado; 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Joint effort with the 
state of Colorado included hazard, risk, and values at risk, including 
environmental values such as threatened and endangered species.

BLM office: California; 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Assessment of fire regime 
and vegetation conditions began in 2004.

BLM office: Nevada; 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Joint effort with other 
federal and state agencies will assess hazard, risk, and communities at 
risk. BLM began its assessment of fire regime and vegetation conditions 
in 2004.

BLM office: Oregon/Washington; 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Assessment of fire regime 
and vegetation conditions began in 2004.

BLM office: Idaho; 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Joint effort with state 
and other federal agencies to assess hazard, risk, and values, 
including environmental values such as threatened and endangered 
species, water quality, air quality, and soil.

BLM office: Arizona; 
Assessment conducted and elements addressed: Assessment of fire regime 
and vegetation conditions completed in 2003. 

Source: GAO.

[End of table]

Although the forests and BLM offices have undertaken independent 
efforts, some similarities exist in their approaches. Specifically, 
several of the units have attempted to include environment and 
ecosystem values in their mapping efforts. For example, Region 1 of the 
Forest Service assembled data on species habitat, water quality, soils, 
erosion potential, airsheds, and vegetation. The data are mapped, which 
provides managers with the location of important resources as they plan 
their fuel reduction activities. This team developed a computer program 
called the Multi-Resource Information Tool that uses the hazard, risk, 
and values information to rank different watersheds by different risk 
categories. In a similar way, some of the BLM offices identified the 
values present in different management areas, including environmental 
resource values. Other BLM offices use a computer program called the 
Risk Assessment and Mitigation System to model the protection afforded 
these values from their chosen fuel reduction programs.

The purpose of conducting risk assessments at the forest and BLM field 
office level is to support decisions about where to target fuel 
reduction efforts and where naturally caused fires can be managed and 
controlled to achieve resource benefits. The forests and BLM field 
offices are required to identify in their fire management plans the 
areas in which they will continue suppressing fires, those in which 
they will conduct fuel reduction projects, and those in which they can 
allow wildland fires to burn to reduce fuels and provide resource 
benefits. A risk assessment would help the offices identify these 
areas. For example, officials at some of the forests we visited stated 
that they wanted to increase their use of wildland fires to achieve 
resource benefits. Using wildland fire in this way not only provides 
resource benefits, but may also help to limit the overall costs of 
suppressing fires. For example, if the Forest Service had been able to 
let the Burgdorf Junction fire in Idaho burn, the fire would have 
benefited most resources and the agency would have spent much less than 
the $26 million used to suppress the fire. The fire, which occurred in 
an area identified as having low accumulations of fuel that could have 
benefited from a fire to maintain its conditions, was suppressed to 
protect a nearby community--a community that would have been protected 
by a $1 million fuel reduction project that was considered lower 
priority, given funding and the assessment of vegetation conditions.

Although a framework for conducting risk assessments to support the 
agencies' landscape-level fuel reduction activities would identify the 
organizational level at which the assessment should be conducted, 
agency guidance issued in 2002 and 2003 does not direct the forests or 
BLM field offices to conduct risk assessments to support their 
landscape-level fuel reduction plans. Specifically, guidance issued in 
April 2002 directs the Forest Service and BLM to collaborate with other 
agencies, including state, local, and tribal agencies responsible for 
managing wildland fire and fuels, in planning treatments across 
landscapes. This guidance recommends that landscape plans be developed; 
however, it does not require a formal risk assessment to support a 
plan. In addition, guidance issued in February and March 2003 directs 
the forests and BLM field offices to use the methods from the national 
assessment of fuel conditions to classify their local lands and fuel 
reduction projects according to their alteration from historic fire 
regimes. The purpose for classifying projects, in the short term, is to 
determine if the agencies are making progress toward reducing the 
number of acres of land they manage that have high accumulations of 
vegetation. In the long term, the guidance directs that the methods be 
used as part of land management planning.

Forest Service and BLM Also Lack a Systematic Approach to Assess the 
Risks of Environmental Effects Associated with Fuel Reduction Projects:

The Forest Service and BLM also do not have a systematic approach for 
assessing the risks of environmental effects associated with fuel 
reduction projects. Because the agencies generally assess the 
environmental effects of fuel reduction projects in NEPA documents, we 
reviewed 10 environmental assessments for such projects. Although the 
agencies' assessments were for projects that would mitigate or avoid 
the effects of wildland fire, the assessments did not systematically 
assess the hazard, risks, or values associated with the projects. This 
is because the agencies lack clear guidance on how to assess the risks 
of environmental effects of projects and where to document the 
assessment and effects--in environmental assessments or in other 
documents. Interim guidance issued for the Healthy Forests Restoration 
Act partially addresses the need for documentation of the effects of 
not taking action to reduce fuels, but is not yet complete or final. 
CEQ guidance on developing model environmental assessments for fuel 
reduction projects, issued in 2002, does not address the risks of 
environmental effects from reducing fuels or not because the purpose of 
the guidance was to facilitate the development of concise environmental 
assessment documentation. Guidance on how to do such assessments and 
where to document them is important if the agencies are to effectively 
use fuel reduction projects to address the risks of environmental 
effects from wildland fires.

Some Environmental Assessments Did Not Systematically Assess the Risks 
of Not Reducing Fuels:

Our review of 10 environmental assessments of fuel reduction projects-
-6 prepared by the Forest Service and 4 by BLM--revealed that some of 
these assessments did not systematically assess the risks of the likely 
environmental effects from not implementing fuel reduction projects. 
Forest Service and BLM officials recognize that taking no action to 
reduce fuels while continuing to suppress fires will contribute to 
continued accumulation and alteration of vegetation, perpetuating 
hazardous conditions that can create severe fire effects. At the same 
time, fuel reduction projects themselves can pose risks to 
environmental resources. For these reasons, it is important that the 
agencies, in developing fuel reduction projects, discuss the hazard, 
risk, and values at risk associated with project alternatives. It is 
also important that the agencies analyze a project's environmental 
effects. We reviewed the environmental assessments prepared by the 
Forest Service and BLM to determine the extent to which they (1) 
included a discussion of, or referred to, other documents that 
discussed hazard, risk, and value in assessing project alternatives and 
(2) presented information and data on the environmental effects of the 
no-action alternative. We did not determine whether the assessments 
complied with NEPA.

Generally, the agencies analyze the environmental effects of a fuel 
reduction project in an environmental assessment, which is an analysis 
conducted under NEPA regulations and guidance to discusses such 
effects. In general, fuel reduction projects can range in size from a 
few hundred acres to several thousand acres. In developing a project, 
forest and BLM staff determine the purpose and need for the project and 
design one or more alternatives. Although NEPA regulations do not 
require the agencies to consider a no-action alternative and its 
effects in an environmental assessment, the agencies often do develop a 
no-action alternative and consider its effects. The agencies can use 
several different models of fire effects and fire behavior to show how 
different vegetation will burn in different conditions, such as 
weather. (See app. VI for a discussion of models.) Through this 
modeling, agency staff can show that reducing vegetation can reduce the 
risk of a fire becoming uncharacteristically large and intense and the 
risk of associated adverse effects.

Furthermore, in analyzing the effects of a fuel reduction project, the 
agencies are also to consider whether the project meets the 
requirements of several environmental laws, including the Clean Water 
Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. In analyzing 
water quality effects, for example, forest and BLM staff estimate what 
effects fuel reduction activities such as mechanical thinning--which 
can involve heavy equipment that compacts soils--will have on soils and 
sedimentation of local streams. In analyzing air quality effects, 
forest and BLM staff estimate the amount of smoke that a prescribed 
burn may produce. Finally, in analyzing the effects of a project on 
threatened and endangered species--such as the Northern spotted owl or 
the Canada lynx--the agencies may be required to develop biological 
assessments of the effects on species population and habitat. In 
consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and 
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, the agencies use these 
biological assessments to determine what risks the alternatives pose 
for species and their continued existence and survival.[Footnote 22]

Table 4 shows the results of our review of the 10 environmental 
assessments.

Table 4: Results of GAO's Review of 10 Fuel Reduction Project 
Environmental Assessments:

Project name: Rogue; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? Yes; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Project name: Horsethief; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? No; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Project name: Weaver Mountain; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? No; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Project name: Pine Valley; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? No; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Project name: Last Chance; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? Yes; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Project name: Sheafman; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? Yes; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Project name: Deer Point; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? Yes; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Project name: Pinaleno; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? No; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Project name: Cache la Poudre; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? No; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Project name: Ely; 
Hazard, risk, and values included? No; 
Discussion of environmental effects specifically for not reducing 
fuels? Yes.

Sources: Forest Service and BLM (documents); GAO (analysis). 

[End of table]

Of the 10 assessments we reviewed, 4--3 from the Forest Service and 1 
from BLM--used the hazard, risk, and value framework for a risk 
assessment to discuss the action and no-action alternatives. In one 
case, for example, the BLM's Rogue assessment estimated the number of 
days per year that intense fires would reach the crowns of trees--known 
as crown fire--and kill whole trees. The assessment also estimated how 
much of the project area contained environmental resources at risk. The 
Forest Service's Sheafman project assessment described the risk of fire 
on the basis of a recent trend toward large fires in the project area. 
However, 6 of the 10 assessments did not use a hazard, risk, and value 
framework to discuss the risk of environmental effects. Existing 
guidance does not specifically require this or describe how the 
assessment should be done.

Each of the 10 assessments included some level of discussion of the 
environmental effects of the no-action alternative (see table 4). The 
level of detail about the effects varied from a minimal description of 
some effects to a detailed discussion of effects that was comparable to 
the discussion provided in other alternatives. For example, one of the 
assessments only described the general effects of no action as 
"increasing risk of damage to water resources." On the other hand, 
another of the 10 assessments used extensive tables comparing the 
specific effects on a wide range of environmental resources that could 
result from taking or not taking action to reduce fuels.

Although each of the 10 assessments we reviewed contained some effects 
of not reducing fuels, the effects were not described systematically in 
all of the assessments. According to forest and BLM staff, as well as 
biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries, 
predicting the environmental effects of the no-action alternative is 
difficult. This difficulty stems from having to predict the occurrence 
of wildland fires, which are random events. The staff noted that such 
an analysis would need to be based on the assumption that a particular 
fire would occur and on estimates of the environmental effects of that 
assumed fire--a process they said might be considered "speculative." 
For example, to project the potential effects of wildland fire in a 
project area on a threatened or endangered species--such as the 
Northern spotted owl or Canada lynx--a wildlife specialist would take 
data produced by fire models to determine what habitat and food sources 
would be affected under anticipated fire conditions. While some say 
that this cannot be done, according to agency and CEQ officials, NEPA 
involves making reasonable forecasts of effects, and models can provide 
a reasonable basis on which to make such forecasts.

Guidance Is Unclear About How to Assess and Document the Risks of 
Environmental Effects of Fuel Reduction Projects:

The varied use of risk assessment at the project level is a result of 
the fact that the agencies do not have clear guidance about the 
systematic assessment of the risks of environmental effects from 
wildland fire from fuel reduction projects. Guidance would describe how 
relevant hazards, risks, and values would be assessed for fuel 
reduction projects and where such information would be documented. Such 
guidance could be expected to appear in the agencies' fire planning or 
NEPA guidance. However, Forest Service and BLM fire planning guidance 
does not provide clear direction on how to conduct and document an 
assessment of risk of environmental effects at the project level, 
although the agencies recognize the importance of reducing fuels to 
mitigate or avoid the environmental effects of wildland fires. As 
described above, the agencies' fire planning guidance refers to 
assessing the risks to communities at the landscape level and to 
assessing the condition of vegetation at the project level. Just as the 
guidance does not address the assessment of hazard, risk, and values at 
risk at the landscape level, it does not discuss the assessment of 
hazard, risk, and value at the project level.

Similarly, NEPA guidance does not describe how to conduct or document 
an assessment of the risks of environmental effects associated with 
fuel reduction project alternatives. In terms of describing how to 
conduct such an assessment, although NEPA guidance requires the 
description of an alternative's environmental effects, it does not 
discuss an explicit risk assessment approach involving the assessment 
of hazard, risk, and value. In terms of documenting the environmental 
effects of a project, NEPA does not explicitly require the discussion 
of the effects of the no-action alternative in an environmental 
assessment. Analysis and documentation of the effects of a no-action 
alternative in relation to the effects of action alternatives 
facilitates the comparison of the relative risks of taking action or 
not to reduce fuels at the project level. While NEPA requires 
environmental impact statements to discuss a no-action alternative for 
a proposed project, it does not require this of environmental 
assessments. In 2002, CEQ issued NEPA guidance for a demonstration 
program to develop examples of model environmental assessments for fuel 
reduction projects. The demonstration program sought to make 
environmental documents more concise by removing unnecessary 
information. While the CEQ guidance stated that the agencies may 
compare the impact of the proposed action and alternatives with the 
current condition and expected future condition in the absence of the 
project, it did not address the no-action alternative or its effects in 
environmental assessments of fuel reduction projects.

The agencies have opportunities to clarify the analysis and 
documentation of the risks of environmental effects from not taking 
action to reduce fuels. In February 2004, the agencies issued interim 
guidance on the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA).[Footnote 23] 
This guidance, which does not clearly state when a no-action 
alternative should be developed, states that the effects of not 
reducing fuels should be documented in a project's files. It also 
identifies some effects that may be analyzed as part of the 
documentation. However, the guidance does not include the range of 
environmental resources that may be affected by wildland fire nor does 
it state clearly what analyses should be done. In addition, the 
agencies and CEQ met in March 2004 to evaluate the lessons learned from 
the demonstration program, which CEQ used to develop examples. The 
agencies are compiling lessons learned from the demonstration program 
that they intend to use in future environmental assessments. Through 
these evaluations, CEQ and the agencies have another opportunity to 
clarify how the agencies will address the risks of environmental 
effects associated with fuel reduction projects and whether or not the 
discussion of the effects of taking no action should be included in 
environmental documents for projects.

Conclusions:

The Forest Service and BLM, in conjunction with the other federal, 
state, local, and tribal land management agencies, face important and 
complex challenges in managing wildland fires, and, in particular, 
minimizing risks from future fires, including the effects of fires on 
environmental resources and ecosystems. The primary challenge that 
relates to these effects is, over the long term, balancing the risks of 
adverse effects caused by wildland fires with the benefits that such 
fires offer to restoring resources and ecosystems. The agencies will 
not be able to find such a balance without understanding the range of 
environmental and ecosystem effects created by wildland fire, including 
the adverse, neutral, and beneficial effects, and without gathering 
data and information to monitor and support their decision making about 
fire management. The range and variety of effects complicates their 
data-gathering efforts, which makes it important that the agencies 
select the right effects to monitor and that the agencies test and 
adopt new tools that can help them capture the range of effects of 
wildland fire. Without collecting landscape data on wildland fire 
effects as the National Fire Plan and its activities are implemented, 
the Forest Service and BLM--as well as the other fire management 
agencies--will not have information and data to give them a better 
understanding of how fires are affecting environmental resources and 
ecosystems over the long term. With such data, the agencies would be in 
a better position to answer the question whether fires are burning with 
more than normal severity because of vegetation and fuel conditions or 
as a result of other factors. For these reasons, it is important that 
the agencies, and more broadly the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, 
follow through on their commitment to implement the monitoring 
framework passed in May 2004.

A second challenge is that the agencies will not be able to stop all 
fires, nor will they be able to reduce fuels on all lands. Without a 
risk-based approach, the agencies cannot adequately determine where 
they will take deliberate action to reduce fuels and the risks of 
potential fire effects and where they will take the risk of fire 
occurring. Successful risk management is grounded in risk 
identification and assessment. Until the agencies formalize a framework 
for assessing the elements of risk at appropriate organizational 
levels, they will not have a systematic process for assessing the risks 
to environmental resources and ecosystems posed by wildland fires and 
will not be able to coordinate their efforts to ensure that they 
succeed in reducing these risks. A framework should incorporate and 
build on the data that are to be generated by LANDFIRE, as well as fire 
and other models. At the landscape level, a framework would clarify 
what elements will be included in agency risk assessments, what 
decisions will be supported by risk assessments, who will do the 
assessments, and when they will be done. This is particularly important 
as state and local agencies are moving ahead with risk assessments and 
the federal agencies will need to coordinate and collaborate with them.

In carrying out fuel reduction projects, it is important that the 
agencies consider the risk of not taking action to reduce fuels and the 
long-term risk of wildland fire effects. In fact, HFRA now specifically 
requires the agencies to develop a no-action alternative for fuels 
reduction projects covered by the act. However, the agencies must also 
assess the risks of effects from their actions to reduce fuels to 
ensure that they will not exacerbate existing resource problems or 
create new problems. Such decisions require information on the 
potential environmental effects of all project alternatives and the 
ability to make clear comparisons among project alternatives and their 
potential effects. Without clear guidance on the complicated analysis 
and comparisons that seem warranted to adequately address the effects 
of taking action or not to reduce fuels, the agencies lack the ability 
to make informed decisions to conduct fuel reduction projects, and as a 
result, these projects could face challenges and delay rather than 
proceeding more quickly in the face of increased risks. The agencies' 
guidance needs to be more specific about (1) how the assessment of 
hazard, risk, and values at risk should be done at the project level 
and (2) where the assessment of such risks should be documented. Both 
the HFRA guidance and the lessons learned from the CEQ demonstration 
program provide an opportunity for the agencies and CEQ to clarify 
appropriate guidance.

Recommendations for Executive Action:

To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and 
potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, we recommend 
that the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting 
with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, direct the Forest Service 
and BLM to:

* develop a monitoring plan to implement the agencies' framework 
approved in May 2004 and include a pilot program for testing on Forest 
Service and BLM lands the applicability of, and resource needs 
associated with, the burn severity mapping and data tool developed by 
the National Park Service;

* develop and issue guidance, in consultation with experts inside and 
outside the agencies, that formalizes a framework for systematically 
assessing landscape-level risks to ecosystems from wildland fires; and:

* clarify existing guidance, working with CEQ and taking into account 
any lessons learned from the CEQ demonstration program, on the 
assessment and documentation of the risks of environmental effects 
associated with not conducting fuel reduction projects.

Agency Comments and Our Evaluation:

We provided a draft of this report to the Secretaries of Agriculture 
and the Interior and the Chairman of CEQ for review and comment. The 
departments provided a consolidated written response to our draft, 
which is included in appendix VII of this report. CEQ provided written 
comments, which are included in appendix VIII.

The departments stated that the draft was well prepared and provided a 
thorough analysis of a complex set of issues. In commenting on our 
recommendation to develop a monitoring plan and pilot project to test a 
tool for mapping the long-term effects of wildand fires, the 
departments said they presently have several methods for assessing such 
effects. Specifically, the departments said that the Forest Service and 
BLM work with the U.S. Geological Survey to assess the burn severity of 
large or severe fires and that, at the field level, the agencies 
collect site-specific data on wildland fires to support their land 
management plans and postfire rehabilitation plans. Furthermore, the 
departments mentioned that in May 2004, the Wildland Fire Leadership 
Council approved a nationwide monitoring framework for wildland fire 
data, including fire severity data. We agree that the agencies have 
various methods for assessing the effects of wildland fire, and we 
identified several of these in the report. We are also encouraged by 
the recent development of a nationwide monitoring framework. However, 
this framework does not address the part of our recommendation that 
calls for a pilot program for testing a different tool for measuring 
burn severity. The pilot program would allow the agencies to determine 
the extent to which the National Park Service tool is applicable for 
assessing the environmental and ecosystem effects from wildland fires 
that start on the agencies' lands. Furthermore, since the framework has 
just been approved, no plan for its implementation has been developed. 
Accordingly, we are recommending that such a plan be developed. We 
modified the report text and recommendation to reflect the recent 
approval of a monitoring framework.

In commenting on our second recommendation that the agencies develop 
and adopt a framework that supports systematic assessment of the 
landscape-level risks to ecosystems from wildland fire and issue 
guidance implementing that framework, the departments had several 
concerns. First, the departments stated that the Forest Service and BLM 
are designing and refining a number of analytical tools to assess 
project and landscape-level risk. Specifically, the departments noted 
that the Fireshed Assessment process is a promising approach for 
evaluating fuel treatment effectiveness across landscapes and that 
LANDFIRE will provide nationally consistent data to be used in 
landscape-level risk assessments. Second, the departments stated that 
the agencies already include a significant amount of risk assessment in 
their fuels programs. The departments said that national fuel reduction 
priorities represent a judgment about risk; the classification of 
wildland-urban interface areas into high, medium, and low priorities 
represents another judgment about risk; and the emphasis on treating 
lands in different fire regimes and condition classes represents yet 
another judgment about risk. The departments also stated that the 
relative value of resources is decided through the collaborative 
project selection and prioritization process developed with states for 
the implementation of the 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy, as directed 
by the Congress, and that community wildfire protection plans called 
for in HFRA include an assessment of risks associated with high-
priority areas and values identified by the communities. Third, while 
the departments agree that prioritization of fuel reduction treatments 
can be improved and in their technical comments they agree that they do 
not have a single, consistent risk-based approach, they do not believe 
that a model or methodology that assesses the risks associated with 
fuel reduction treatments across time and at the landscape and project 
scales can be developed. Finally, the departments said that it is 
misleading to assert that the Forest Service and BLM have focused on 
the wildland-urban interface, preventing them from developing a 
systematic approach to ecosystem risk assessment.

Our recommendation is based on our belief that to systematically 
identify fuel reduction projects, the agencies should support a single 
common approach or framework for assessing risk. We recognize that the 
agencies are developing a number of analytical tools useful for 
assessing landscape-level risk. We note several of these in our report 
and believe that they can serve as good examples for the agencies in 
developing an overall risk assessment framework. However, a common 
approach will allow the agencies to prioritize projects systematically. 
In addition, we recommended that the agencies seek the assistance of 
external and internal experts, which would allow them to identify the 
best tools for conducting risk assessments and would leverage the 
experience of the field offices in developing and using different risk 
tools, such as the Fireshed Assessment process the departments mention. 
In addition to Fireshed, several other worthwhile efforts that are 
being implemented in the field could serve as examples.

Regarding the departments' views that they already carry out a 
significant amount of risk assessment, it is our view that the results 
of these assessments are too broad to target fuel reduction projects at 
the landscape or project levels. Given the level of fuel reduction 
needs (90-200 million acres) identified in the Coarse-Scale Analysis 
and the emphasis of the 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy and 
Implementation Plan on reducing risks to the wildland-urban interface 
and environment, the agencies need a systematic way to further target 
their projects to areas of high risk and to demonstrate to decision 
makers and to the public how the decisions have been made and what 
results have been achieved with the use of public funds. The 
departments state that the collaborative process will identify relative 
values and priorities and that community wildfire protection plans will 
include assessment of the risks to community-defined values. 
Recognizing that the 10-Year Comprehensive Implementation Plan does not 
change existing agency statutory and regulatory responsibilities, we do 
not disagree. However, we believe that a formalized, common risk 
assessment framework would better inform the collaborative efforts 
under way, as well as future community efforts, by providing the groups 
involved with consistent hazard and risk information and allowing them 
to identify values at risk. We did not, as the departments' comments 
state, suggest they develop a single, all-encompassing model or 
methodology to assess risks associated with fuel reduction treatments 
across multiple time frames and geographic scales. Rather, our 
recommendation is directed at ensuring that the agencies develop a 
common approach to assessing landscape-level risks to environmental 
resources and ecosystems from wildland fires. We modified our report 
text and recommendation language to clarify that we mean a formalized, 
common approach to assessing risks.

Furthermore, we did not criticize the agencies' emphasis on addressing 
threats within the wildland-urban interface. We merely observed that 
the agencies have not made the same degree of progress in developing an 
approach for assessing the risks from wildland fire to ecosystems and 
environmental resources as they have for areas within the wildland-
urban interface. We concur with the agencies' statements in the 10-Year 
Comprehensive Strategy and Implementation Plan that threats outside the 
wildland-urban interface also need to be addressed, and our 
recommendation is directed at that need. We did not mean to imply that 
communities should not be a high priority for fuel reduction, and we 
modified our report text accordingly.

Lastly, the departments disagree with our recommendation that the 
agencies develop and issue guidance to clarify the assessment and 
documentation of risks of environmental effects associated with taking 
or not taking action to reduce fuels. They said that current NEPA 
guidance is sufficient and that additional guidance on conducting risk 
assessments would be inconsistent with new CEQ guidance, which calls 
for short concise environmental assessments. Furthermore, the 
departments said that existing direction is generally adequate for 
implementing the lessons learned from the CEQ demonstration program. We 
did not state that CEQ's guidance fails to meet the intent of NEPA, nor 
did we recommend any amendments to that guidance. The purpose of our 
recommendation is to help ensure that the agencies have a sound 
scientific basis for the prioritization decisions that they will need 
to make to implement fuels reduction projects as effectively as 
possible, not to enhance agency compliance with NEPA. In fact, interim 
guidance issued by the agencies for HFRA partially addresses the need 
to document the risks associated with not taking action to reduce 
fuels. Specifically, the interim guidance says that "it is important 
that the specialists' report retained in the project files document the 
anticipated short-and long-term effects of proposed HFRA treatments." 
We believe, however, that if the agencies agree that the documentation 
of risks and effects is important, this guidance should specifically 
require the need for such documentation and should clarify how the 
environmental assessment should refer to the effects of the no-action 
alternative documented in the project files. Accordingly, we continue 
to believe that clear guidance for helping agency personnel determine 
the appropriate form and content of the risk assessment associated with 
not taking action would improve the agencies' fuel reduction efforts. 
We modified our report text and our recommendation language to reflect 
the fact that the agencies' interim guidance provides another 
opportunity to clarify the analysis of risks of not reducing fuels.

CEQ provided us written comments on the aspects of the report that 
reflect CEQ policies. CEQ stated that our draft should not imply that 
CEQ's guidance for its demonstration program could, or was intended to, 
describe "how to" assess the risks of environmental effects of taking 
action to reduce fuels against those of not taking action. CEQ stated 
that the purpose of this guidance was to provide a framework to support 
the development of environmental assessments that are "concise" and 
"public" documents that better serve their core function: briefly 
describing sufficient evidence and analysis to support a decision about 
whether or not to prepare an environmental impact statement and to 
assist agency NEPA compliance. We did not intend to imply that CEQ's 
guidance should discuss risk assessment methods, and we directed our 
recommendation to the agencies to clarify their guidance and 
methodology. We referred to the CEQ guidance in our discussion of risk 
assessments for conducting or not conducting fuel reduction projects 
only to demonstrate that such guidance does not exist.

CEQ also said that our draft incorrectly states that CEQ and the 
agencies plan to finalize a report on the "lessons learned" from the 
demonstration program. Rather, CEQ said that it has issued examples of 
completed environmental assessments on the Internet and that the 
agencies have drafted a document on these lessons. We deleted the 
reference to CEQ being a participant with the Forest Service and BLM in 
documenting the lessons learned from the program.

The Departments of Agriculture and the Interior and CEQ made other 
technical comments, which we addressed as appropriate in the report.

As arranged with your offices, unless you publicly announce the 
contents earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until 
30 days after the date of this letter. At that time, we will send 
copies of this report to other interested congressional committees. We 
will also send copies of this report to the Secretaries of Agriculture 
and the Interior, the Chief of the Forest Service, the Director of BLM, 
and the Chairman, CEQ. We will make copies available to others upon 
request. In addition, the report will be available at no charge on the 
GAO Web site at [Hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov.].

If you or your staff have questions about this report, please contact 
me at (202) 512-3841. Key contributors to this report are listed in 
appendix IX.

Signed by: 

Barry T. Hill:
Director, Natural Resources and Environment:

List of Requesters:

The Honorable Pete V. Domenici:
Chairman: 
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources: 
United States Senate:

The Honorable Larry E. Craig 
Chairman:  
Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests: 
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources: 
United States Senate:

The Honorable Mike Crapo: 
Chairman: 
Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water: 
Committee on Environment and Public Works: 
United States Senate:

The Honorable Kit Bond: 
United States Senate:

The Honorable Conrad Burns: 
United States Senate:

The Honorable Ben Nighthorse Campbell: 
United States Senate:

The Honorable John Ensign: 
United States Senate:

The Honorable Jon Kyl: 
United States Senate:

The Honorable Gordon H. Smith: 
United States Senate:

[End of section]

Appendixes:

Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and Methodology:

This appendix presents the scope and methodology we used to gather 
information on the environmental effects of wildland fire and to 
understand the data collected on these effects by the Forest Service 
and the Bureau of Land Management. It also addresses how we identified 
the approaches that these agencies use to assess the risk posed to 
environmental resources by wildland fire and the relative risks of 
undertaking and not undertaking fuel reduction activities.

To describe the environmental effects of wildland fire and assess the 
information the Forest Service and BLM gather on these effects, we 
randomly selected a sample of 20 fires from a universe of 614 wildland 
fires to include in a survey. The fires we selected ranged in size from 
hundreds to tens of thousands of acres in diverse geographic locations. 
To identify the universe of wildland fires, we created a database from 
two separate lists of Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response 
(BAER) reports and BLM Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation (ESR) 
reports completed in 2000, 2001, and 2002. We requested these lists of 
BAER and ESR reports because the agencies' official lists of wildland 
fires did not contain information on the environmental effects of these 
fires. Both Forest Service and BLM officials indicated that BAER and 
ESR reports contain data on the environmental effects of fire because 
they are prepared for the purpose of requesting emergency stabilization 
funds to aid in the recovery of the burned areas. We assessed the lists 
of these reports for completeness and accuracy and found them to be 
reliable for the purpose of selecting a sample of wildland fires. We 
also visited the locations of 6 western fires and discussed the data 
collected on their environmental effects with local Forest Service and 
BLM officials. Figure 6 shows the fires we included in our survey 
sample, as well as the fire locations we visited in eight western 
states.

Figure 6: Location of Forest Service and BLM Wildland Fires Visited and 
Surveyed:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

To develop survey questions for the sample of 20 wildland fires and 
better understand the data that the Forest Service and BLM collect on 
the environmental effects of these fires, we (1) conducted a literature 
review and read reports and scientific studies on this topic; (2) 
reviewed federal fire policy documents, handbooks, BAER and ESR 
reports, and other reports; and (3) interviewed Forest Service and BLM 
officials in national, regional, and state offices, as well as local 
land units. Information gathered from the agencies on the environmental 
effects of wildland fire allowed us to develop a series of questions 
for our survey about the size and extent of a wildland fire and how it 
affected individual resources, such as soil, vegetation, air, 
watersheds, and threatened and endangered species over the short and 
long term. Our survey also contained questions on short-term (defined 
as less than 10 years), long-term (defined as greater than 10 years), 
and cumulative effects of the sample fire on the landscape or 
ecosystem. Some of these questions requested that the land managers 
make predictions about the future effects of a wildland fire rather 
than providing data about effects that had already occurred. Therefore, 
there is a greater degree of uncertainty regarding the accuracy of 
responses to these questions than to questions about observed effects.

Once we developed the survey questions, we pretested the content and 
format of the survey with BAER and ESR team leaders and other agency 
staff, as well as with two scientific and technical experts at the 
University of Arizona and the University of Washington. We conducted 
pretests with agency officials located in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, 
Washington, and Washington, D.C. During pretesting, we simulated the 
actual survey experience by asking the individual to complete the 
survey, and then we conducted a semistructured interview to determine 
whether (1) the questions were clear, (2) the terms used were precise, 
and (3) how long it took individuals to answer the questions. In mid-
November 2003, we electronically mailed the survey to staff the 
agencies identified as knowledgeable about each fire and instructed 
them to return the survey by electronic mail. We obtained a 100 percent 
response rate from staff at all 20 field locations.

To identify the approaches the Forest Service and BLM take to assess 
the risk to environmental resources from wildland fire and the risks 
associated with undertaking and not undertaking fuel reduction 
projects, we reviewed National Fire Plan policies, National 
Environmental Policy Act regulations, and the December 2001 report
[Footnote 24] prepared by the National Academy of Public 
Administration on risk assessment and its application to the National 
Fire Plan. We also obtained agency guidance and selected planning and 
project documents to see how they addressed the potential 
environmental effects of future fires. To obtain specific information 
on the agencies' risk assessment practices, we interviewed Forest 
Service and BLM officials representing seven national forests and six 
BLM field offices and reviewed their land and resource management 
plans, in addition to their fire management plans. We also examined 
existing and proposed risk assessment approaches discussed in research 
papers and governmental and nongovernmental publications, and we 
interviewed some of the authors. During 2003, we attended two national 
conferences on wildland fire and risk assessment decisions held in 
Denver, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon. We also contacted the National 
Park Service, professors from five universities, and scientists from 
the Forest Service's research stations in California, Montana, and 
Colorado, including those who participated in developing the national 
assessment of fuel conditions and LANDFIRE.

To identify how the Forest Service and BLM evaluate the relative risks 
of undertaking or not undertaking projects to reduce fuels, we reviewed 
10 environmental assessments of fuel reduction projects in eight 
western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, 
Utah, and Washington. We selected 6 environmental assessments prepared 
by the Forest Service and 4 prepared by BLM for analysis. Of the 
assessments we selected, 5 were part of a Council on Environmental 
Quality (CEQ) demonstration program for developing model environmental 
assessments and 5 were not. We also interviewed officials at Forest 
Service and BLM headquarters and staff members at CEQ to obtain 
information on agency guidance to field offices and CEQ program 
guidance to agencies. Finally, we interviewed headquarters and regional 
staff from NOAA Fisheries and the Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain 
information on how agency biologists could compare the short-term 
effects of fuel reduction projects on threatened and endangered species 
with the long-term effects of a future wildland fire in their 
environmental assessments.

We conducted our work from April 2003 through April 2004 in accordance 
with generally accepted government auditing standards.

[End of section]

Appendix II: Fire Regime Condition Class Analysis:

Wildland fire managers have recognized for several years the need to 
reduce excessive vegetation levels that have accumulated and been 
altered after decades of excluding fire from different ecosystems. 
Until 2000, managers did not have national-level data that could be 
used to distinguish and prioritize the different ecosystems that are 
more affected than others by fire exclusion. To accomplish such a 
prioritization, land managers need data on the current conditions of 
vegetation and fuels. In 2000, the staff of the Forest Service's Fire 
Sciences Laboratory at the Rocky Mountain Research Station produced an 
assessment of spatial data for wildland fire and fuel management called 
the Coarse-Scale Analysis.[Footnote 25] The staff gathered and analyzed 
national-level data from several sources to create vegetation maps and 
from that assessed the condition of this vegetation to act as fuel for 
wildland fire. The assessment resulted in a national map of vegetation 
and fuel conditions. The assessment was based on "coarse-scale" or 
coarse resolution data that are not, and were never intended to be, 
applicable for site-level use.

The assessment identified three categories of fuel conditions, called 
fire regime condition classes (FRCC), using estimates of the historical 
fire regimes--the frequency and intensity of fires typical for 
different vegetation types--and estimates of the alteration in current 
vegetation. Figure 7 shows the three categories of hazard and the 
levels of alteration from historic conditions (hazard) that they 
represent.

Figure 7: Wildland Fire Hazard:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

The original assessment estimated that wildland fire could cause severe 
effects on about 182 million acres of land in the United States. Of 
that land, an estimated 75 million acres of federal land, including 
land managed by the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service 
within the Department of Agriculture, could suffer from severe effects 
as a result of wildland fire. In 2002, the original assessment was 
updated to more thoroughly examine grassland vegetation and to make 
corrections from more specific data gathered through samples on the 
ground. This update focused on 11 western states, reporting that 183 
million acres across the west were highly altered from historical 
conditions and would experience severe effects from wildland fire. 
Based on additional analysis, the agencies estimated that the amount of 
highly altered vegetation nationwide could vary from 90 to 200 million 
acres.

Federal land management agencies and the National Fire Plan have 
adopted the FRCC categories as an indicator of whether forest and 
grassland ecosystems are in good condition. The National Fire Plan, 
under its goal for achieving fire-adapted ecosystems, tracks the acres 
of land that are in the second and third FRCC categories for which 
fuels are reduced and conditions changed to a lower category--either 
the first or second category. The agencies' field offices, which plan 
and implement all projects to reduce fuels, are responsible for 
monitoring their progress through a new national reporting system, 
which tracks National Fire Plan goals and performance measures.

Because the national-scale data is based on coarse resolution data, the 
data cannot be used to identify the areas on the ground that need to 
have fuel reduction activities--it can only be used at a Forest Service 
regional level or summarized to several western states. To help the 
field offices identify which acres need fuel reduction treatment 
projects, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are 
developing a project-level analysis tool. This tool, which the Forest 
Service and the Department of the Interior began to implement in spring 
2004, requires the field office staff to conduct a field visit to 
examine vegetation conditions, to consider them in context of past and 
current fire regimes, and to estimate the alteration of fire regimes 
and fire intensity if a fire were to burn in the current conditions.

The FRCC concept has been incorporated into LANDFIRE, which is a data 
system that, when completed, will provide periodic updates of national 
vegetation maps at a higher resolution than the original assessment 
provided in 2000. LANDFIRE is also expected to provide FRCC maps and 
will contain computer models to help fire planners and land managers 
estimate how wildland fire might behave in the estimated fuel 
conditions. Full implementation of LANDFIRE was approved in 2003 and 
funded by the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior in 
2004. The system is expected to be completed for application across the 
nation in 2009. In the interim, the agencies will use the FRCC 
assessment and project tool to track progress in reducing high levels 
of fuels across the nation.

[End of section]

Appendix III: Definition of Fire/Burn Severity:

Table 5 presents the definitions of fire/burn severity as it relates to 
effects on soils and vegetation. We asked Forest Service and BLM 
officials to use this table in responding to questions about the 
specific fires and their effects on soil and vegetation for the 20 
wildland fires in our sample.

Table 5: Classes of Fire Severity for Soils and Vegetation:

Class: Unburned; 
Soil substrate--litter/duff: Not burned; 
Vegetation-- understory/brush/herbs: Not burned.

Class: Scorched; 
Soil substrate--litter/duff: Litter partially blackened; 
duff nearly unchanged; wood/leaf structures unchanged; 
Vegetation--understory/brush/herbs: Foliage scorched and attached to 
supporting twigs.

Class: Lightly burned; 
Soil substrate--litter/duff: Litter charred to partially consumed; 
upper duff layer burned; wood/leaf structures charred, but 
recognizable; 
Vegetation--understory/brush/herbs: Foliage and smaller twigs partially 
to completely consumed.

Class: Moderately burned; 
Soil substrate--litter/duff: Litter mostly to entirely consumed, 
leaving coarse, light-colored ash; duff deeply burned; wood/leaf 
structures unrecognizable; 
Vegetation--understory/ brush/herbs: Foliage, twigs, and small stems 
consumed.

Class: Heavily burned; 
Soil substrate--litter/duff: Litter and duff consumed, leaving fine, 
white ash; 
mineral soil visibly altered, often reddish; 
Vegetation--understory/brush/herbs: All plant parts consumed, leaving 
some or no major stems/trunks.

Class: Not applicable; 
Soil substrate--litter/duff: Inorganic; 
Vegetation--understory/brush/herbs: Not present.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Note: The definition appears in the National Wildlife Coordinating 
Group Fire Use Working Team, National Interagency Fire Center, Fire 
Effects Guide (NFES 2394), (Boise, Idaho: June 2001), citing Fuel and 
Fire Effects Monitoring Guide, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, June 
2001.

[End of table]

[End of section]

Appendix IV: Selected Wildland Fire Survey Results:

This appendix provides selected results from our survey of Forest 
Service and BLM officials on the environmental effects of 20 sample 
wildland fires (app. I). Tables 6 and 7 present general information 
about each fire and the fire location. Tables 8 through 13 provide 
information on the generally short-term effects that these fires had 
on individual environmental resources such as streams and watersheds, 
threatened and endangered species and their habitats, air, soils, and 
vegetation.

Table 6 lists each wildland fire by size according to the total number 
of federal and nonfederal acres of land burned. It also presents 
information on federal and nonfederal acreage within the fire perimeter 
but not burned by fire.

Table 6: Acres Burned by Fire, Land Ownership, and Percent of Forest 
and BLM Field Office Land Base:

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Total acres burned: 57,935; 
Federal acres burned: 49,990; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 7,945; 
Federal acres unburned: 11,929; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 615; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 3.80%. 

Fire name: Sheep Mountain (Wyoming); 
Total acres burned: 27,574; 
Federal acres burned: 21,370; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 6,204; 
Federal acres unburned: 5,102; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 1,253; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 0.59%. 

Fire name: Burgdorf Junction (Idaho); 
Total acres burned: 17,207[A]; 
Federal acres burned: 17,207; 
Nonfederal acres burned: D/K; 
Federal acres unburned: 47,000; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: D/K; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 2.90%. 

Fire name: Crimson Clover (Idaho); 
Total acres burned: 16,172; 
Federal acres burned: 14,466; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 1,706; 
Federal acres unburned: 330; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 1.00%. 

Fire name: Elko 13/#3 (Nevada); 
Total acres burned: 13,104; 
Federal acres burned: 12,544; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 560; 
Federal acres unburned: 256; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: <.01%. 

Fire name: Boulder Hills (Montana); 
Total acres burned: 11,394; 
Federal acres burned: 5,400; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 5,994; 
Federal acres unburned: 287; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 665; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 2.00%. 

Fire name: Abert (Oregon); 
Total acres burned: 10,100; 
Federal acres burned: 10,100; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 0; 
Federal acres unburned: 0; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 0.30%. 

Fire name: Rough Diamonds (Idaho); 
Total acres burned: 8,467; 
Federal acres burned: 7,268; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 1,199; 
Federal acres unburned: 383; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 63; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 0.04%. 

Fire name: Stables (California); 
Total acres burned: 6,349; 
Federal acres burned: 4,162; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 2,187; 
Federal acres unburned: 115; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 80; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 0.67%. 

Fire name: Horse Creek (Oregon); 
Total acres burned: 3,763; 
Federal acres burned: 1,839; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 1924; 
Federal acres unburned: 0; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: <.01%. 

Fire name: Cow Hollow (Oregon); 
Total acres burned: 3,718; 
Federal acres burned: 3,022; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 696; 
Federal acres unburned: 336; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 77; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 0.20%. 

Fire name: Longleaf Vista; 
(Louisiana); 
Total acres burned: 2,500; 
Federal acres burned: 2,497; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 3; 
Federal acres unburned: 0; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 0.40%. 

Fire name: Tipton Ranch (Nevada); 
Total acres burned: 2,031; 
Federal acres burned: 2,025; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 6; 
Federal acres unburned: 0; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: <.01%. 

Fire name: Pony Express II (Nevada); 
Total acres burned: 1,806; 
Federal acres burned: 1,806; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 0; 
Federal acres unburned: 0; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 0.50%. 

Fire name: Crusoe (Nevada); 
Total acres burned: 1,386; 
Federal acres burned: 1,386; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 0; 
Federal acres unburned: 0; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: <.01%. 

Fire name: Hyampom (California); 
Total acres burned: 1,065; 
Federal acres burned: 1,053; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 12; 
Federal acres unburned: 0; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 1.00%. 

Fire name: Elk Mountain (Montana); 
Total acres burned: 1,024; 
Federal acres burned: 667; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 357; 
Federal acres unburned: 0; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: <.01%. 

Fire name: Springer (Arizona); 
Total acres burned: 666; 
Federal acres burned: 666; 
Nonfederal acres burned: N/A; 
Federal acres unburned: 208; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: N/A; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 0.20%. 

Fire name: Y-Mountain (Utah); 
Total acres burned: 461; 
Federal acres burned: 437; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 24; 
Federal acres unburned: 0; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: 0.05%. 

Fire name: Horse (Idaho); 
Total acres burned: 243; 
Federal acres burned: 243; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 0; 
Federal acres unburned: 27; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 0; 
Percent of forest or BLM office land base affected by fire: <.01%. 

Total; 
Total acres burned: 186,965; 
Federal acres burned: 158,148; 
Nonfederal acres burned: 28,817; 
Federal acres unburned: 65,973; 
Nonfederal acres unburned: 2,753.

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM officials.

Note: D/K = did not know; 
N/A = not applicable.

[A] Total acres burned include only federal acres.

[End of table]

Table 7 presents information on the major types and uses of federal 
land affected by each wildland fire.

Table 7: Types and Uses of Federal Land within Fire Perimeters:

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 3,167; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 36,752; 
Forested or timbered acres: 46,431; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 7,134; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 5,712.

Fire name: Sheep Mountain (Wyoming); 
Woodland acres: 8,382; 
Rangeland acres: 12,297; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 21,370; 
Forested or timbered acres: 691; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Burgdorf Junction (Idaho); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 0; 
Forested or timbered acres: 17,207; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 17,207.

Fire name: Crimson Clover (Idaho); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 14,466; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 14,466; 
Forested or timbered acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Elko 13/#3 (Nevada); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 12,544; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 12,544; 
Forested or timbered acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Boulder Hills (Montana); 
Woodland acres: 2,170; 
Rangeland acres: 1,867; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 3,650; 
Forested or timbered acres: 1,363; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 1,750.

Fire name: Abert (Oregon); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 10,100; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 10,100; 
Forested or timbered acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Rough Diamonds (Idaho); 
Woodland acres: 3,556; 
Rangeland acres: 3,556; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 7,268; 
Forested or timbered acres: 156; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Stables (California); 
Woodland acres: 70; 
Rangeland acres: 4,092; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 0; 
Forested or timbered acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Horse Creek (Oregon); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 1,839; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 1,839; 
Forested or timbered acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Cow Hollow (Oregon); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 3,022; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 3,022; 
Forested or timbered acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Longleaf Vista (Louisiana); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 0; 
Forested or timbered acres: 2,497; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 310; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 2,187.

Fire name: Tipton Ranch (Nevada); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 2,025; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 2,025; 
Forested or timbered acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Pony Express II (Nevada); 
Woodland acres: 1,806; 
Rangeland acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 6; 
Forested or timbered acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 1,800.

Fire name: Crusoe (Nevada); 
Woodland acres: 277; 
Rangeland acres: 1,109; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 1,386; 
Forested or timbered acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Hyampom (California); 
Woodland acres: 133; 
Rangeland acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 0; 
Forested or timbered acres: 920; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 815; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 238.

Fire name: Elk Mountain (Montana); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 422; 
Forested or timbered acres: 667; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 245; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Springer (Arizona); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 7; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 333; 
Forested or timbered acres: 659; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 333; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Y-Mountain (Utah); 
Woodland acres: 326; 
Rangeland acres: 41; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 0; 
Forested or timbered acres: 70; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 0; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 0.

Fire name: Horse (Idaho); 
Woodland acres: 0; 
Rangeland acres: 0; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 0; 
Forested or timbered acres: 243; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 30; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 213.

Total; 
Woodland acres: 16,720; 
Rangeland acres: 70,132; 
Number of acres permitted for grazing: 115,183; 
Forested or timbered acres: 70,904; 
Number of acres permitted for timber harvest: 8,867; 
Congressionally or administratively designated acres[A]: 29,107.

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM officials.

Note: Data do not include land managed by federal agencies other than 
the Forest Service or the BLM or lands not owned by the federal 
government. Uses in this table are mutually exclusive.

[A] Includes wilderness, recommended wilderness, wilderness study 
areas, research natural areas, wild and scenic rivers, and inventoried 
roadless areas.

[End of table]

Table 8 presents information on the size and extent of each wildland 
fire's effects on streams and watersheds.

Table 8: Miles of Perennial Streams and Number of Floods, Debris Flows, 
or Landslides within Fire Perimeters:

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 84.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 4%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 60.

Fire name: Sheep Mountain (Wyoming); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 34.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 6%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 1.

Fire name: Burgdorf Junction (Idaho); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 107.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 2%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 1.

Fire name: Crimson Clover (Idaho); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: N/A; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: N/A; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Elko 13/#3 (Nevada); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 5.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 2.

Fire name: Boulder Hills (Montana); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 3.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 2%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 3.

Fire name: Abert (Oregon); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 0.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 
N/A.

Fire name: Rough Diamonds (Idaho); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 0.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: N/A; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Stables (California); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 0.10; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 1.

Fire name: Horse Creek (Oregon); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 7.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Cow Hollow (Oregon); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 0.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Longleaf Vista (Louisiana); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 2.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 1%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Tipton Ranch (Nevada); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 0.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: N/A; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Pony Express II (Nevada); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 3.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 1%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Crusoe (Nevada); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 0.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Hyampom (California); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 11.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 1%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 11.

Fire name: Elk Mountain (Montana); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 1.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Springer (Arizona); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 0.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 0.

Fire name: Y-Mountain (Utah); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 0.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 1.

Fire name: Horse (Idaho); 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 1.00; 
Percent of perennial stream miles in forest or field office within 
fire perimeter: 0%; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 
D/K.

Total; 
Miles of perennial streams within fire perimeter: 258.10; 
Number of floods, debris flows or landslides within fire perimeter: 80.

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM officials.

Note: D/K = did not know; 
N/A = not applicable.

[End of table]

Table 9 presents the three wildland fires that severely burned 
municipal watersheds and affected water quality.

Table 9: Municipal Watersheds within Severely Burned Areas:

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Number of municipal watersheds within severely burned area: 3; 
Locations affected by fire: Durango, Bayfield, Ignacio, Colorado; 
Number of months water quality degraded: 60.

Fire name: Stables (California); 
Number of municipal watersheds within severely burned area: 2; 
Locations affected by fire: Santa Clarita, California; 
Number of months water quality degraded: Not degraded.

Fire name: Hyampom (California); 
Number of municipal watersheds within severely burned area: 5; 
Locations affected by fire: Hayfork, California; 
Number of months water quality degraded: 36.

Total; 
Number of municipal watersheds within severely burned area: 10.

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM officials.

Note: A municipality may be served by more than one watershed.

[End of table]

Table 10 presents the five wildland fires that affected federally 
listed threatened or endangered species or their habitats.

Table 10: Fires Affecting Threatened and Endangered Species Populations 
and Habitats:

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Threatened or endangered species: Canada lynx; 
Percent of species' range burned: 1.8; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? no.

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Threatened or endangered species: Bald eagle; 
Percent of species' range burned: <.01%; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? yes.

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Threatened or endangered species: Southwestern willow fly catcher; 
Percent of species' range burned: <.01%; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? D/K.

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Threatened or endangered species: Colorado pikeminnow; 
Percent of species' range burned: N/A[A]; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? yes[B].

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Threatened or endangered species: Razorback sucker; 
Percent of species' range burned: N/A[A]; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? yes[B].

Fire name: Longleaf Vista (Louisiana); 
Threatened or endangered species: Red-cockaded woodpecker; 
Percent of species' range burned: 2.0%; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? yes[C].

Fire name: Hyampom (California); 
Threatened or endangered species: Bald eagle; 
Percent of species' range burned: N/A[D]; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? no.

Fire name: Hyampom (California); 
Threatened or endangered species: Northern spotted owl; 
Percent of species' range burned: <.01%; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? no.

Fire name: Springer (Arizona); 
Threatened or endangered species: Mexican spotted owl; 
Percent of species' range burned: <.01%; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? no.

Fire name: Horse (Idaho); 
Threatened or endangered species: Canada lynx; 
Percent of species' range burned: <.01%; 
Did fire adversely affect species population? no.

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM officials.

Note: D/K = did not know; 
N/A = not applicable.

[A] Species located downstream of fire, not within fire perimeter.

[B] These fish species were not directly affected by the fire but by 
stream depletions during suppression of the fire.

[C] Respondent also indicated the fire beneficially affected the 
species population.

[D] The area burned by the fire is potential transitory habitat for 
this species, not forage habitat.

[End of table]

Table 11 presents the volume of air pollutants each wildland fire 
released and relates the impact of the particulate matter emissions to 
a national air quality standard.

Table 11: Air Emissions by Fire:

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): D/K; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): D/K; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): D/K; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 5.00.

Fire name: Sheep Mountain (Wyoming); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 3,845.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 22,511.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 423,351.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Burgdorf Junction (Idaho); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 8,250.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): D/K; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): D/K; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Crimson Clover (Idaho); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): D/K; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): D/K; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): D/K; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Elko 13/#3 (Nevada); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 184.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 694.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 29,706.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 0.00.

Fire name: Boulder Hills (Montana); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 902.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 4,056.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 72,967.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Abert (Oregon); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 1,190.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 6,126.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 82,058.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 1.00.

Fire name: Rough Diamonds (Idaho); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): D/K; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): D/K; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): D/K; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Stables (California); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 3,500.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 15,200.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 317,700.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 8.00.

Fire name: Horse Creek (Oregon); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 165.50; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 570.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 11,758.50; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 0.00.

Fire name: Cow Hollow (Oregon); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 37.18; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 128.06; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 2,641.36; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Longleaf Vista (Louisiana); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 261.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 1,172.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 21,087.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Tipton Ranch (Nevada); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 0.60; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 0.16; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 0.32; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 0.50.

Fire name: Pony Express II (Nevada); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 54.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 443.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 7,923.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Crusoe (Nevada); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 193.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 912.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 14,625.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Hyampom (California); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): D/K; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): D/K; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): D/K; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 8.00.

Fire name: Elk Mountain (Montana); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 286.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 1,978.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 31,016.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 8.00.

Fire name: Springer (Arizona); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 197.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 889.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 15,994.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: D/K.

Fire name: Y-Mountain (Utah); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 15.60; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 91.30; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 1,652.10; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 0.

Fire name: Horse (Idaho); 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 105.00; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 528.00; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 7,191.00; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 0.

Total; 
Tons of total particulate matter (PM): 19,185.88; 
Tons of carbon monoxide (CO): 55,298.52; 
Tons of carbon dioxide (CO ): 1,039,670.28; 
Number of days air quality exceeded PM 2.5 standards[A]: 30.50.

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM officials.

Note: D/K = did not know.

[A] The Environmental Protection Agency defines PM 2.5 as fine 
particles measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter. When these solid 
particles mix with liquid droplets in the air, they form a common air 
pollutant known as particulate matter.

[End of table]

Table 12 identifies two significant effects the wildland fires had on 
soils located on federal lands. The first three columns identify the 
acres on which the fire burned but had beneficial effects, grouped by 
(1) severely burned acres, (2) moderately burned acres, and (3) lightly 
burned acres. The last column shows the percentage of acres burned by 
the fire that may experience the adverse effects of soil erosion.

Table 12: Fire Effects on Soils by Burn Severity and Erosion Potential:

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 40%.

Fire name: Sheep Mountain (Wyoming); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 30%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 100%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 56%.

Fire name: Burgdorf Junction (Idaho); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: N/A; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 100%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 100%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 43%.

Fire name: Crimson Clover (Idaho); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 50%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 4%.

Fire name: Elko 13/#3 (Nevada); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 11%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 60%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 12%.

Fire name: Boulder Hills (Montana); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 20%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 20%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 84%.

Fire name: Abert (Oregon); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 100%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 0%.

Fire name: Rough Diamonds (Idaho); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 34%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 81%.

Fire name: Stables (California); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 91%.

Fire name: Horse Creek (Oregon); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 11%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 43%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 0%.

Fire name: Cow Hollow (Oregon); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 0%.

Fire name: Longleaf Vista (Louisiana); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 72%.

Fire name: Tipton Ranch (Nevada); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 0%.

Fire name: Pony Express II (Nevada); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 61%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 100%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: D/K.

Fire name: Crusoe (Nevada); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 50%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 100%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 0%.

Fire name: Hyampom (California); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 82%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 47%.

Fire name: Elk Mountain (Montana); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 0%.

Fire name: Springer (Arizona); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 100%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 6%.

Fire name: Y-Mountain (Utah); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 34%.

Fire name: Horse (Idaho); 
Percent of severely burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 0%; 
Percent of moderately burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 50%; 
Percent of lightly burned federal acres with beneficial effects on 
soils: 100%; 
Percent of acres with high potential erosion hazard: 8%.

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM officials.

Note: D/K = did not know; 
N/A = not applicable.

[End of table]

Table 13 identifies three significant effects the wildland fires had on 
vegetation. The first three columns identify the percentage of federal 
acres burned and the severity with which the vegetation burned. The 
fourth and fifth columns identify the federal acres that experienced 
stand-replacing fire and the number of acres in which this fire 
behavior is characteristic of the historic fire regime. The last two 
columns show the number of acres populated by noxious or invasive weeds 
prior to the fire, as well as the number of these acres vulnerable to 
weeds after the fire.

Table 13: Fire Effects on Vegetation:

Fire name: Missionary Ridge (Colorado); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: N/R; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 6,500; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
1,950; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: D/K; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: D/K.

Fire name: Sheep Mountain (Wyoming); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 9,000; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
9,000; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 1,000; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 5,000.

Fire name: Burgdorf Junction (Idaho); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 10,900; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
10,900; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 20; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 9,900.

Fire name: Crimson Clover (Idaho); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 69%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: N/A; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
N/A; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 10,120; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 14,466.

Fire name: Elko 13/#3 (Nevada); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 22%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 60%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 20; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
15; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 6,272; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 10,000.

Fire name: Boulder Hills (Montana); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 50%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 50%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 2300; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
800; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 500; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 1,800.

Fire name: Abert (Oregon); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 0; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
0; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 0; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 0.

Fire name: Rough Diamonds (Idaho); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 63%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 4,096; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
4,096; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 618; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 1,000.

Fire name: Stables (California); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 35%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 90%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 0; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
N/R; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 3,800; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 4,000.

Fire name: Horse Creek (Oregon); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 11%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 43%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 0; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
N/R; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 100; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 900.

Fire name: Cow Hollow (Oregon); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 0; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
0; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 3,058; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 3,358.

Fire name: Longleaf Vista (Louisiana); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 100; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
100; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 1,875; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 1,875.

Fire name: Tipton Ranch (Nevada); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: NA; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
100; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 2,025; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 2,025.

Fire name: Pony Express II (Nevada); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 9%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 705; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
705; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: D/K; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 705.

Fire name: Crusoe (Nevada); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 60%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 277; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
277; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 1,386; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 1,386.

Fire name: Hyampom (California); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 380; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
50; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 1,053; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 1,053.

Fire name: Elk Mountain (Montana); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 55%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 445; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
290; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 0; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 1,024.

Fire name: Springer (Arizona); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 0%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 50%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 26; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
0; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 26; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 26.

Fire name: Y-Mountain (Utah); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: D/K; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: D/K; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: D/K; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: D/K; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
0; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 280; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 380.

Fire name: Horse (Idaho); 
Percent of federal acres severely burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 40%; 
Percent of federal acres moderately burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Percent of federal acres lightly burned with beneficial effects on 
vegetation: 100%; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 230; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
81; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 0; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 0.

Total; 
Federal acres of trees burned in stand-replacing fire[A]: 34,979; 
Federal acres of trees in which stand-replacing fire is characteristic: 
28,364; 
Federal acres with weeds prior to fire: 32,133; 
Federal acres vulnerable to weeds after fire: 58,898.

Source: GAO survey of Forest Service and BLM officials.

Note: D/K = did not know; 
N/A = not applicable; 
N/R = no response.

[A] Stand-replacing fire refers to a fire that burns 80 percent or more of the vegetation.

[End of table]

[End of section] 

Appendix V: Remote Sensing Data and Systems:

To gather data on features of the earth, land management agencies use 
remote sensing technologies and data. Remote sensing means that 
different technologies are used to gather data from some distance away 
from the earth--that is, remotely. As shown in figure 8, the 
technologies used to collect data can be based on satellites, 
airplanes, or towers of some kind. These platforms carry sensors that 
collect data through spectral images, or wavelengths that reflect off 
objects. Different objects on the earth reflect light differently, and 
the images can be filtered and analyzed to identify the objects. For 
example, the amount of greenness reflecting back from burned acres 
varies depending on the amount of vegetation burned, which gives land 
managers an idea of how severely different areas have been affected by 
fire.

Figure 8: Remote Sensing Technologies and the Data Produced:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Remote sensing data is analyzed using geographic information system 
tools. Through these computer systems, the image data can be integrated 
and analyzed with other spatially referenced data, such as topography, 
weather, and soils.

Depending on the resolution of the images that are taken, the data 
gathered through remote sensing systems are more or less detailed. For 
example, a resolution commonly used for gathering information on 
natural resources is 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer (250 acres), which 
refers to the size of the area of ground that is recorded in 1 pixel--
that is, 1 point of remote sensing data. A more specific resolution is 
30 meters by 30 meters, which is equivalent to about one-quarter acre. 
Figure 9 compares an actual site, on the left, with the site 
represented through two remote-sensing methods. The center photograph 
represents the view taken from an airplane (the square outlines the 
actual site from the photograph on the left), and the photograph on the 
right depicts 30-meter by 30-meter data captured by a satellite-based 
sensor (the square outlines the actual site from the photograph on the 
left).

Figure 9: Images and Data Collected Using Aerial and Satellite 
Technology Compared with an Actual Site:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

[End of section]

Appendix VI: Examples of Models for Assessing Wildland Fires and Fuels:

Fire ecologists and researchers have been studying wildland fire for 
many years and through this process have developed models, databases, 
and other tools that are helpful for land and fire managers in planning 
and managing fires and their effects. Not only does the Forest Service 
maintain a system of laboratories that conduct research on many aspects 
of wildland fire, including wildland fire behavior, fire effects, air 
quality, and more, but the Bureau of Land Management maintains an 
agreement with the Desert Research Institute to study fire, atmosphere, 
and ecological effects. In addition, universities and nonprofit 
organizations are studying different aspects of fire and its effects. 
The Joint Fire Science Program is a key source of funding for fire 
researchers, providing almost $16 million in 2002 to study (1) fire 
effects and fuel treatments; (2) planning and preparedness; (3) air 
quality, smoke management, and climate; (4) social and economic 
impacts; (5) fire and invasive plant species; (6) remote sensing; (7) 
demonstration projects; and (8) local and other projects. Some of the 
important tools that have been developed to model fire and its effects 
are described below.

BehavePlus: This is a modeling system that uses vegetation information 
to predict a number of different factors that describe a wildland fire 
for the purposes of planning a prescribed fire or predicting the 
behavior of a potential wildland fire. The factors that describe fire 
behavior include the rate of spread of fire, length of flames the 
vegetation would produce, size of the fire that would burn, distance 
that embers would fly to unburned areas, and amount of trees and other 
vegetation that would die from the fire, among others.

FARSITE: This is a fire growth simulation model that computes fire 
behavior and growth over a long period of time across a geographic 
area. Using fire behavior models integrated with spatial vegetation 
data, terrain data, and weather data, the model projects where and how 
fast a fire will spread across a landscape with variable vegetation, 
and how hot or intense the fire will be.

Fire and Fuels Extension-Forest Vegetation Simulator (FFE-FVS): This is 
a model originally developed to simulate forest growth and yield, which 
has been adapted to provide information for fuels reduction projects. 
It uses data on specific stands of trees and "grows" the trees to show 
stand development over time. It also simulates accumulation and decay 
of surface fuels due to litter, tree mortality, and fuel reduction 
resulting from treatments. Expected fire behavior and effects if a 
wildland fire should occur are also shown over the simulation period. 
This information is used by fuels planners to assess the need for fuel 
treatment.

Vegetation Dynamics Development Tool (VDDT): This model uses "state in 
transition" models or box and arrow diagrams to show how vegetation is 
changing and will change.

NEXUS: This is a model that estimates surface, transition, and crown 
fire behavior, which occurs in the forest canopy. The model shows the 
conditions that may cause a crown fire in an area with particular 
combinations of surface and canopy fuels and fuel moisture conditions. 
The wind speed at which crown fire can occur is computed based on the 
potential for crown fire in the stand. This information can be used to 
evaluate alternatives for treating fuels to reduce the risk of crown 
fire.

FlamMap: This software creates geographic information system maps 
(raster maps) of potential fire behavior characteristics, including 
rate of spread, flame length, crown fire, and others, as well as 
environmental factors such as fuel moistures and wind speeds. It does 
not simulate fire growth but uses spatial information on topography and 
fuels to calculate fire behavior factors at a point in time.

Simulating Vegetative Patterns and Processes at Landscape Scales 
(SIMPPLLE): This simulation model shows the succession of vegetation 
after fire or other disturbance has been introduced. It is spatially 
explicit, meaning that the results are mapped in a geographic 
information system. It also models the change in vegetation over time. 
Planners can use it to explore how fire will affect a landscape and how 
their fuel reduction treatments can change the outcome.

Multi-Resource Analysis and Geographic Information System (MAGIS): 
MAGIS is an optimization model that schedules fuel reduction treatments 
across a landscape. It is a spatial model that considers land 
management objectives for deciding which projects are optimal and also 
functions under user-imposed resource constraints.

First-Order Fire Effects Model (FOFEM): This model estimates the first-
order effects of a fire in a particular area based on a set of fuel 
loadings provided by the users. First-order effects include those 
effects that result directly from the fire: fuel consumption, tree 
mortality, smoke, and soil heating. Second-order effects refer to the 
indirect effects of fire: erosion, soil loss, and species or habitat 
loss.

Fire Effects Information System (FEIS): This system provides literature 
reviews for about 900 plant species, 100 animal species, and 16 plant 
communities (as defined by Kuchler in North America). The reviews, 
called "species summaries," are online at [Hyperlink, www.fs.fed.us/
database/feis] w [Hyperlink, http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis] 
ww.fs.fed.us/database/feis. The objective of each summary is to 
synthesize information on fire and its effects on the species, but 
background information on taxonomy, distribution, basic biology, and 
ecology is also provided. Summaries are documented and each contains a 
complete bibliography.

LANDFIRE: This system consists of a database and models that will 
provide nationwide data on vegetation conditions and departure from 
fire regimes. The data and system will be used by forests and BLM field 
offices to identify how much vegetation has accumulated beyond 
historical conditions for purposes of reducing fuels.

Fuel Characteristic Classification System (FCCS): This is a database of 
different fuelbeds that can exist around the country. A fuelbed is a 
unit of land on a landscape that contains relatively homogenous fuel 
conditions in the form of different vegetation. The fuelbeds are 
created by classifying the amount and type of vegetation--which acts as 
fuel--in six different strata--canopy, shrub, low vegetation, woody 
fuel, mosses, and ground fuels.

Fuel Photo Series: The series contains a collection of photos showing a 
range of natural vegetation conditions in the field and their related 
fuel conditions. The photos can be compared to actual conditions on the 
ground for fire and land managers to use in running fire effects models 
and to plan fuel reduction projects.

Bluesky: This smoke-dispersion model simulates the cumulative impacts 
from wildland fires, prescribed fires, and agricultural burn 
activities. The model can be used by air quality regulators and land 
managers who are planning prescribed burns for purposes of minimizing 
the effects of smoke on communities and other areas with impaired air 
quality.

Ventilation Climate Information System (VCIS): This is a national 
climate model that predicts localized inversions that can hold in 
smoke, causing impaired air quality. Fire and land managers can use the 
model to plan prescribed burns to minimize their effect on air quality.

CONSUME: CONSUME is an interactive model of fuel consumption that 
estimates the amount of fuels consumed during prescribed and wildland 
fires. It predicts the amount of smoke and pollutants emitted from a 
particular fire based on weather data, the amount of fuel, fuel 
moisture, and other factors. Land managers use the model to plan for 
prescribed burns.

Fire Emissions Production Simulator (FEPS): This model estimates the 
rate of gas, heat, and particle emissions from a fire. It calculates 
total fuel consumption and determines short-term and long-term 
smoldering and consumption. Land managers use this to plan a response 
to smoke emissions from a wildland fire.

Fire Effects Tradeoff Model (FETM): This model simulates changes in 
vegetation composition over time--1 to 300 years--and shows the 
different outcomes from alternative land management practices over the 
selected time frame. It does not display these spatially but summarizes 
the landscape composition in various categories, such as density 
classes, acres disturbed, and fire emissions. It can be used by 
managers when planning a number of activities over a large area--over 1 
million acres.

National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS): The system combines 
weather, climate, and fuels information to predict the potential for 
wildland fires to occur on a daily basis. Land managers use the system 
to plan the timing of prescribed burns and to anticipate when wildland 
fires might occur.

[End of section]

Appendix VII: Consolidated Comments from the Departments of Agriculture 
and the Interior:

WASHINGTON:

THE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE:

THE DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR:

June 9, 2004:

Barry T, Hill:
Director:
Natural Resources and Environment: 
United States General Accounting Office:
441 G Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20548:

Dear Director Hill:

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to review the draft report, 
Wildland Fires: Forest Service and BLM Need Better Information and a 
Systematic Approach for Assessing the Risks of Environmental Effects 
(GAO-04-705). The report is a well-prepared document that provides a 
thorough analysis of a complex set of issues.

We agree with GAO that systematic data collection and analysis is a way 
to better inform the selection of fuels treatment projects, We are 
presently doing so. The Wildland Fire Leadership Council has endorsed 
an accelerated schedule to complete the LANDFIRE project which will 
provide nationally consistent data sets to aid in the selection of 
fuels treatments, At its May 2004 meeting WFLC approved a nationwide 
monitoring program. Our efforts to uniformly gather and analyze 
information across the nation will enable us to better track changes as 
well as help provide standardized information in support of decision-
making at local levels where both the Administration and Congress 
center prioritization.

GAO calls for risk assessments but we note that the agencies already do 
a significant amount of risk assessment within the fuels program, 
indeed it is an inherent part of the entire effort locally and 
nationally, The Implementation Plan for the 10-Year Comprehensive 
Strategy calls for identification and prioritization of hazardous fuels 
treatments by agency field offices in collaboration with state, tribal, 
and local representatives, These decisions flow from assessments of 
risks, hazards, and values to be protected, National priorities 
likewise rest on assessments regarding risk. Administration and 
congressional emphasis on wildland urban interface (WUI) areas 
represent a judgment on risk, The classification of WUI areas into 
high, medium, and low priorities using the National Association of 
State Foresters guidance includes an assessment of risk, Outside the 
WUl the emphasis on treating lands in Fire Regimes I, II, and III that 
are in Condition Classes 2 and 3 is also an assessment of risk,

Finally, the development of community wildfire protection plans, as 
provided in Title I of the Healthy Forests Reforestation Act of 2003, 
includes an assessment of risk associated with high priority areas and 
values identified by communities as a basis for sequencing fuels 
reduction activities.

GAO appears to suggest that, absent development of a calculus producing 
systematic assessments of the fire-related risks to ecosystems, natural 
resources, and societal values associated with treating fuels and not 
treating fuels at both project and landscape scales fuels treatment 
priorities cannot be properly developed, Prioritization can be improved 
and we are working to do so, The emergence of models or a methodology, 
however, that meaningfully assesses the risks associated with treating 
fuels or not treating fuels across time and at multiple spatial scales 
seems unlikely, It would have to identify and integrate all the impacts 
of doing fuels treatments and not doing fuels treatments on species, 
natural resources, constantly changing ecosystems, and on the myriad of 
values people place on landscape components, We do not agree that such 
a calculus can be developed and instead believe that current methods, 
especially as additional information becomes available, provide the 
best approach to balancing multiple considerations in execution of the 
federal hazardous fuels program,

The report notes that the National Fire Plan directs the agencies to 
conduct fuel reduction activities in areas that face the greatest 
losses and also says that the agencies do not have a systematic method 
for assessing the risk of fire to environmental resources because the 
agency has placed a higher priority on assessing areas that threaten 
communities. The assertion that the Forest Service's and Bureau of Land 
Management's focus on the WUI has kept it from developing a systematic 
approach to ecosystem risk evaluation is misleading, It is important to 
put these statements in their proper context, The agencies have been 
directed by Congress to give priority to areas that threaten 
communities, specifically, the WUI. The focus on the WUI is in response 
to specific direction by Congress to meet a strong public demand, 
Congress and the public have determined that these areas face the 
greatest potential loss and, while protecting environmental resources 
are also important, protecting people and communities must be the 
highest priority, However, the efforts to develop consistent methods to 
evaluate wildland fire potential and risk at the landscape scale have 
continued.

In reference to GAO's specific recommendations:

* Develop a monitoring plan for gathering consistent and comprehensive 
data on the long-term effects of wildland fires, including a pilot 
program for testing, on Forest Service and BLM lands, the applicability 
and resource needs associated with the burn severity mapping and data 
tool developed by the National Park Service,

Presently the agencies have several methods for assessing the long-term 
effects of wildland fires, The Forest Service and the Department of the 
Interior, U.S. Geological Survey cooperate to conduct consistent 
assessments of burn severity of large or severe wildland fires, At the 
field office level, agencies have also collected site specific or 
watershed specific data in support of their land and resource 
management plans, as well as part of the post-fire rehabilitation 
plans.

At its May 2004 meeting the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC) 
approved a monitoring framework that addresses burn severity to assure 
the consistency of data across the landscape, This new monitoring 
effort will link field and satellite data with output from the LANDFIRE 
project, such as long-term trends of fire effects, vegetation condition 
and other landscape characteristics,

* Develop and adopt, in consultation with experts inside and outside 
the agencies, a framework that supports the systematic assessment of 
the landscape level risks to ecosystems from wildland fires, and issue 
guidance directing the agencies to use the framework.

The agencies are designing and refining a number of analytical tools to 
assess project and landscape-level risk, Specifically, the agencies are 
testing several new GIS-based, landscape risk assessment frameworks, 
One that appears promising for national implementation is the Fireshed 
Assessment process; an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to 
evaluating fuel treatment effectiveness at reducing fire spread across 
landscapes, This process evaluates fuel treatment location, the degree 
of fuel reduction within treatments, and the percentage of land 
treated, and projects the resulting effects on landscape fire spread 
and size.

Since a spatially explicit fire spread modeling system is used, 
tradeoffs resulting from adding, deleting, or moving fuel treatments to 
avoid critical habitat or riparian areas, as well as the effects of 
different intensities of treatment, can be evaluated. This assessment 
process can also be used to evaluate the combined risk to locally 
determined natural resource and social values from both the likelihood 
of an ignition in the area, plus the risk associated with fire 
spreading from an ignition in an adjacent area.

Nationally consistent data required to implement these tools is being 
collected in the LANDFIRE project, a collaborative effort chartered by 
the WFLC. Less sophisticated analytical tools with lower resolution 
data are currently in use by the agencies to assess hazard and risk. 
Meanwhile, the relative value of resources is decided through the 
collaborative project selection and prioritization process developed 
with the States for the implementation plan of the 10-Year 
Comprehensive Strategy, as directed by the Congress,

* Develop and issue guidance, working with CEQ and taking into account 
any lessons learned from the CEQ demonstration program, to clam the 
assessment and documentation of the risks of environmental effects 
associated both with conducting and not conducting fuel reduction 
activities.

We believe the guidance on preparation of environmental assessments for 
fuels treatments provided by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ 
in December 2002 fully meets the intent of the National Environmental 
Policy Act, Supplementary guidance calling for the preparation of more 
detailed and extensive risk assessments, thus potentially adding to the 
length and complexity of environmental assessments would be 
inconsistent with the original purpose of the new guidance which was to 
return environmental assessments to what CEQ's regulations originally 
intended them to be: short, concise statements resulting in a finding 
that either the action will have no significant impact or there was not 
enough information currently available to make significance 
determination so an environmental impact statement is needed,

The agencies have reviewed the lessons learned from the CEQ 
demonstration program and determined that existing direction is 
generally adequate for implementing these lessons. Risks associated 
with not taking action to reduce fuels (the no action alternative) are 
assessed as appropriate and generally documented in the project 
analysis file,

Additional technical comments are included in the attachment,

We appreciate the opportunity to review the draft report, Wildland 
Fires: Forest Service and BLM Need Better Information and a Systematic 
Approach for Assessing the Risks of Environmental Effects (GAO-04-705) 
and look forward to working with GAO on future reports.

Signed by: 

Mark Rey: 
Under Secretary: 
Natural Resources and the Environment: 
U.S. Department of Agriculture:

P, Lynn Scarlett: 
Assistant Secretary Policy: 
Management and Budget: 
U.S. Department of the Interior:

Attachment 1: Additional technical comments (18 pp,):

[End of section]

Appendix VIII: Comments from the Council on Environmental Quality:

EXECUTIVE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT: 
COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY: 
WASHINGTON, D.C. 20503:

June 14, 2004:

Barry T, Hill:
Director: 
Natural Resources and Environment:
United States General Accounting Office: 
441 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20548:

Dear Director Hill:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on your proposed report 
entitled "Wildland Fires: Forest Service and BLM Need Better 
Information and a Systematic Approach to Assessing the Risks of 
Environmental Effects" (GAO-04-705). The following comments of the 
Council on Environmental Quality ("CEQ") are limited to aspects of the 
report that characterize CEQ policies and actions taken in response to 
the President's direction to make administrative improvements that 
ensure more timely decisions, greater efficiency, and better results in 
projects that reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and restore 
forest and rangeland health. The Departments of Agriculture and the 
Interior are separately providing joint comments that address the bulk 
of the proposed report.

For purposes of greater accuracy, CEQ believes that it would be helpful 
for you to distinguish your assessment of projects and events that 
predate the implementation of the President's direction from those that 
reflect the Healthy Forests Initiative, CEQ notes that GAO's selection 
of 20 fires and 10 environmental assessments (EAs) for analysis relies 
on assessments performed prior to the administrative improvements that 
the Departments have adopted to help reduce threats to community 
safety, better protect wildlife and ecosystems, and improve water and 
air quality, The report should make clear that only five of the ten 
EAs that GAO selected for review were among the twelve EAs that the 
Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management developed to 
demonstrate the application of CEQ guidance.

Second, your current draft implies that CEQ's EA guidance could, or was 
intended to, describe "how to" assess the risks of environmental 
effects from reducing fuels or not, GAO-04-705 draft at 37, 41, GAO 
should not imply that CEQ EA guidance should address risk assessment 
methodologies. Consistent with CEQ NEPA regulations governing EAs, the 
purpose of CEQ's EA guidance is to provide a framework to assist the 
development of EAs that are "concise" and "public" documents that 
better serve their core function: briefly describing sufficient 
evidence and analysis to support a decision whether or not to prepare 
an environmental impact statement and assist agency NEPA compliance. 40 
CFR 1501,4, 1508,9, CEQ assisted the Forest Service and BLM in their
development of twelve EAs that reflected agency environmental analysis 
in a clear and concise manner, but CEQ lacks the resources and 
technical expertise to advise the land management agencies "how to" 
conduct that analysis, The agencies sought to tailor their description 
of environmental impacts, including risks, to the complexity and 
potential significance of the issues raised by each proposal for agency 
action. Your draft report suggests that, though they were not required 
to do so, these EAs should have been written according to a specific 
risk assessment methodology, In our view, the demonstration EAs reflect 
the agencies' assessment of hazard, risk and values with a level of 
detail that is appropriate to each proposal for agency action, even if 
they did not precisely track the risk assessment methodology that GAO 
recommends,

Finally, the GAO incorrectly states, at draft page 43, that we plan to 
finalize a "lessons learned" document and issue a report. In issuing 
the EA guidance, CEQ stated that "we will provide examples of completed 
EAs to be used as models and may develop more substantive protocols," 
The examples of completed EAs have been provided on the internet and 
are currently being used by the agencies in NEPA training activities, 
See, e.g., http://www.fire.blm.gov/ea sites/index.htm;
http://www.fs.fed.us/emc/hfiea ide/projects/index.html; http://
www.fireplan.gov/content/success stories; www.ntc.blm.gov. The land 
management agencies have also drafted a "lessons learned" document that 
describes various perspectives on the EA development processes used by 
the agencies in their implementation of the CEQ guidance, CEQ is 
considering possible follow-up actions to build on the experience 
gained in the implementation of CEQ guidance, but has not concluded 
that a formal report is necessary.

Thank you for your consideration of CEQ views regarding your draft 
report. We appreciate the opportunity to consider your evaluation as we 
continue to seek improvements in the Federal land management agencies' 
assessment and response to wildfire risks.

Sincerely,

Signed by: 

James Connaughton: 

Cc: The Honorable Gale Norton: 
The Honorable Ann Veneman:

[End of section]

Appendix IX: GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments:

GAO Contacts:

Barry T. Hill, (202) 512-3841: 
Roy Judy, (202) 512-3482:

Staff Acknowledgments:

In addition to those named above, Nancy Crothers, Sandy Davis, Susan 
Iott, Rich Johnson, and Ches Joy made key contributions to this report. 
Mark Braza, Jean McSween, Kim Raheb, Jena Sinkfield, and Joan Vogel 
made important methodological and graphic contributions to the report.

(360333):

FOOTNOTES

[1] We use the term rangelands to refer to grasslands and shrublands. 

[2] In determining the significance of a proposed action, agencies must 
consider a variety of factors, including the action's geographic scope, 
potential for controversy, and the degree to which the proposed action 
threatens to violate federal, state, or local law. A significant effect 
may exist even if the federal agency believes on balance that the 
effect will be beneficial. When it is uncertain whether the proposed 
action would have significant environmental effects, agencies use 
environmental assessments to determine whether the proposed action 
would have such effects and therefore whether an environmental impact 
statement is necessary.

[3] Pub. L. No. 108-148 (2003). One of the main purposes of the act is 
to reduce wildfire risk to communities, municipal water supplies, and 
other at-risk federal land through a collaborative process of planning, 
prioritizing, and implementing hazardous fuel reduction projects. 

[4] To ensure that all sizes were represented, we conducted a 
systematic random sample. In this method, the fires were ordered by 
size and then fires were selected at regular intervals. 

[5] Kirsten M. Schmidt, James P. Menakis, Colin C. Hardy, Wendel J. 
Hann, and David L. Bunnell, Development of Coarse-Scale Spatial Data 
for Wildland Fire and Fuel Management, GTR RMRS-87 (Fort Collins, 
Colorado, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Rocky Mountain 
Research Station: April 2002).

[6] While the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and the National 
Fire Plan are distinct efforts, they are complementary. The policy, 
updated in 2001, provides broad policy for federal agencies, while the 
National Fire Plan focuses on implementing interagency plans. 

[7] To deal with the need for fuel reduction and restoring fire-adapted 
ecosystems, the departments have drafted a joint fuel reduction policy 
entitled Protecting People and Natural Resources: A Cohesive Fuel 
Treatment Strategy. The cohesive strategy, although first drafted in 
2002, had not been released as of June 2004. It identifies the federal 
agencies' strategy for dealing with fuel reduction and restoring fire-
adapted ecosystems. 

[8] See Graham, Russell, et al., Scientific Basis for Changing Forest 
Structure to Modify Wildfire Behavior and Severity, RMRS-GTR-120 
(Ogden, Utah, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Rocky 
Mountain Research Station: April 2004).

[9] The Congress established the Joint Fire Science Program in 1998 for 
the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to conduct and 
sponsor research projects aimed at better understanding accumulated 
fuels and ways to reduce them.

[10] BLM's lands include about 11 million acres of forested land, which 
is determined to have commercially viable species, and almost 44 
million acres of woodlands, which are determined to be covered in tree 
species that are not considered commercially viable, such as juniper 
trees.

[11] Because some forests are grouped with others in administrative 
units, these forests develop one combined plan. For this reason, 123 
forests will revise their resource management plans.

[12] In proposed amendments to its NFMA regulations, the Forest Service 
would not require the preparation of an environmental impact statement 
for every plan revision. The agency asserts that it may comply with 
NEPA by preparing an environmental assessment for plan revisions under 
some circumstances, or by categorically excluding certain plan 
revisions from NEPA analysis because not all plan revisions will have 
significant environmental effects. An environmental group has indicated 
it will challenge the new planning rule in court. According to the 
Forest Service, regardless of whether it prepares an environmental 
impact statement to accompany a forest plan revision, it will conduct 
environmental analyses for these revisions. 

[13] We used the Forest Service's Fire Effects Information System to 
define short-term effects as those lasting less than 10 years and long-
term effects as those lasting 10 or more years.

[14] Fire or burn severity is a term that qualitatively describes how 
fire affects vegetation and soil. It is a term that refers to how much 
of the vegetation or soil is consumed in the fire rather than a term 
that describes the beneficial or adverse nature of the effects. 

[15] The Forest Service and BLM typically conduct emergency treatments 
in the first year after a fire. Within the first 3 years after a fire, 
the agencies conduct rehabilitation work, and after the third year, the 
agencies conduct restoration work.

[16] These regions include Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, 
and portions of South Dakota and Wyoming. U.S. Department of 
Agriculture Forest Service, A Preliminary Assessment of the Extent and 
Effects of the 2000 Fires (Intermountain and Northern Regions, 2000).

[17] Bureau of Land Management, National Office of Fire and Aviation, 
Out of the Ashes, an Opportunity (Boise, Idaho, 1999).

[18] Paul C. Stern and Harvey V. Fineberg, eds., Understanding Risk: 
Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society (Washington, D.C.: National 
Research Council, 1996). 

[19] The national assessment was a one-time effort. The agencies expect 
the LANDFIRE system to provide periodic assessments of fuel conditions 
similar to this assessment. Like the national assessment, LANDFIRE will 
be based on hazard conditions and will not include risk and values at 
risk.

[20] W. Hann, M. Beighley, P. Teensma, T. Sexton, and M. Hilbruner, "A 
Cohesive Strategy for Protecting People and Sustaining Natural 
Resources: Predicting Outcomes for Program Options," (Paper presented 
at "Fire, Fuel Treatments, and Ecological Restoration Conference," 
April 16-18, 2002). 

[21] C. Miller, P. Landres, and P. Alaback, "Evaluating Risks and 
Benefits of Wildland Fire at Landscape Scales," in L.F. Neuenschwander 
and K.C. Ryan, eds. Joint Fire Sciences Conference and Workshop: 
Proceedings, June 15-17, 2001: 78-87. 

[22] In December 2003, the administration promulgated regulations 
authorizing the Forest Service and BLM to determine that a fuel 
reduction project carried out pursuant to the National Fire Plan would 
not likely adversely affect a listed species without consulting Fish 
and Wildlife Service or NOAA Fisheries. Formal consultation would still 
be required if the action agency determined that a project would be 
likely to have an adverse effect. In March, 2004, an environmental 
group filed a notice of intent to sue the administration, contending 
that the new regulations violate the consultation requirements of 
section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.

[23] HFRA, enacted in December 2003, states that the Forest Service and 
BLM should study, develop, and describe both an action and a no-action 
alternative for fuel reduction projects covered by the act that take 
place outside the wildland-urban interface. Projects authorized under 
the act include those implemented in accordance with the10-year 
implementation plan on federal lands (1) in the wildland-urban 
interface, (2) with highly altered fuels (fire regime condition class 
3) near a municipal water supply system; (3) with moderately altered 
fuels (fire regime condition class 2) near a municipal water supply 
system; (4) with trees blown down by winds or storms or killed by 
insects; or (5) that contain threatened and endangered species habitat, 
where, among other things, the project would provide enhanced fire 
protection to the species or its habitat. No more than 20 million acres 
may be treated under the act.

[24] National Academy of Public Administration, Managing Wildland Fire: 
Enhancing Capacity to Implement the Federal Interagency Policy 
(Washington, D.C., 2001).

[25] Kirsten M. Schmidt, James P. Menakis, Colin C. Hardy, Wendel J. 
Hann, and David L. Bunnell, Development of Coarse-Scale Spatial Data 
for Wildland Fire and Fuel Management, GTR RMRS-87 (Fort Collins, 
Colorado, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Rocky Mountain 
Research Station: April 2002).

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