Wildland Fires:

Forest Service's Removal of Timber Burned by Wildland Fires

GAO-03-808R: Published: Jul 10, 2003. Publicly Released: Aug 11, 2003.

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Wildland fires burned over 8 million acres during the 2000 wildfire season, making it one of the worst in the past 50 years. As a result, a National Fire Plan was implemented beginning in 2001 to better prevent, prepare for, respond to, and repair damage caused by wildland fires. In fiscal years 2001 through 2003, Congress provided $4.9 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Forest Service to implement the National Fire Plan on land that it manages. Of this amount, Congress earmarked $212 million to fund the rehabilitation of land burned by wildland fires. In general, rehabilitation covers long-term efforts to improve lands unlikely to recover naturally from wildland fire damage. In some cases, rehabilitation may include removing timber from burnt land to, among other things, reduce hazardous fuels. Questions have been raised, however, about whether it is appropriate to use rehabilitation funds for removing such timber, which can be sold. Trees that are removed from National Forest System land can be either green and healthy or dead or dying as a result of disease or wildland fire. Depending on their value, the trees may be disposed of or sold. In general, if the trees have little or no commercial value, the Forest Service will use service contracts to have the trees removed and disposed of. If the trees have commercial value, they are considered timber, and the Forest Service will use timber sale contracts to have the timber removed and sold. Timber sale contracts generally proceed through two phases--a planning phase and an implementation and award phase. The Forest Service can use different funding sources to have timber removed depending on the reason for removal. Congress asked us to determine (1) if the Forest Service uses wildland fire rehabilitation funding to remove timber from burnt land, and, if not, the source of funding the Forest Service uses as well as the types of contracts used, and (2) why this timber is removed.

GAO found that the Forest Service relied exclusively on timber sale funding, and did not use wildland fire rehabilitation funding, for implementing and awarding timber sale contracts to have timber removed from burnt land. As of April 2003, 88 timber sale contracts had been implemented and awarded to remove timber from burnt land in Forest Service regions 1, 3, and 4. According to the Forest Service, it has timber removed from burnt land for several reasons--to reduce hazardous fuels, recover the economic value of the timber, protect public health and safety, and restore vegetation. While the Forest Service cited one primary reason for having timber removed for 69 of the contracts, it cited multiple reasons for 19 contracts.

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