Forest Service Planning:

Better Integration of Broad-Scale Assessments Into Forest Plans Is Needed

RCED-00-56: Published: Feb 15, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 16, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Forest Service's ecosystem planning efforts, including the Great Lakes Ecological Assessment, focusing on the: (1) views of the Forest Service, other federal agencies, and GAO on key elements that broad-scale ecosystem based assessments should contain to maximize their value to the forest planning process; (2) extent to which the Forest Service has incorporated these elements into the Great Lakes Ecological Assessment and whether it has integrated the assessment into the forest planning process; and (3) extent to which the Forest Service's proposed planning regulations ensure that future broad-scale assessments contain these elements and are integrated into the forest planning process.

GAO noted that: (1) in recent years, the Forest Service, others, and GAO have concluded that assessments should have certain key elements or characteristics to maximize their value in addressing issues that extend beyond the boundaries of national forests; (2) Forest Service officials in charge of assessments should make clear to Congress, the public, and their staff what the objectives of the assessment are and what its products will be, as well as who will be responsible for delivering the products, at what time, and at what cost; (3) if the agency does not conduct assessments at all or does not ensure that they contain these and other elements, it increases the risk that the planning process will continue to be costly, time-consuming, and less than fully effective; (4) in conducting the Great Lakes Ecological Assessment, the Forest Service has adopted some of these key elements and characteristics; (5) however, regional and forest officials have not viewed the assessment as a priority and have thus not provided the leadership, guidance, and funding necessary to successfully complete it in a timely manner; (6) in GAO's opinion, the Forest Service has not effectively integrated the assessment into its process for revising forest plans in the Lake States; (7) as a result, GAO believes that the agency risks repeating the inefficiency and waste of resources that occurred during the first round of forest planning, when it did not adequately address broad-scale issues and individual national forests independently attempted to gather and analyze data; (8) moreover, without the benefit of the assessment's analysis and conclusions on the range of ecologically viable and legally sufficient alternatives, the agency is more likely to find that the public will: (a) challenge the revised forest plans, causing the agency to delay, amend, or withdraw them; and (b) become frustrated with the planning process if the management alternatives it helped develop do not prove to be ecologically viable or legally sufficient; and (9) the Forest Service's proposed planning regulations also incorporate some of the key elements that are important to broad-scale ecosystem-based assessments, but they could be strengthened to ensure that future assessments have these elements and are better integrated into the forest planning process.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Agriculture responded that, while it agreed with the intent of the recommendation that the Great Lakes Assessment be integrated into the process for revising forest plans, it did not agree with the need to develop a strategy for that integration. The Department stated that individual forests have used and will continue to use the results of the Great Lakes Assessment, as well as other sources of information, as they revise their plans.

    Recommendation: To better integrate the Great Lakes Ecological Assessment into the process used by the Lake States national forests to revise their plans, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to develop a strategy that would allow the assessment team to gather and analyze data and reach conclusions on broad-scale planning-related issues identified by the forests before the forests identify a range of ecologically viable and legally sufficient management alternatives. If time and funding is not available to allow the assessment team to gather and analyze data and reach conclusions on these planning-related issues, then the region and forests will need to: (1) rank the issues so that the available time and funds can be applied to the highest priorities; and (2) identify the likely consequences of not addressing other issues--such as the increased likelihood of subsequent legal challenges to the plans' implementation--to assist the Forest Service and Congress in making additional funding decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: On November 9, 2000, the Forest Service finalized its revised planning regulations (36 CFR Parts 217 and 219). The final regulations state that regional ecosystem assessments have proven to be an extremely valuable and efficient means of understanding the scientific, ecological, social, and economic issues and trends affecting national forests and grasslands and generating baseline data for use in planning and decision-making. However, rather than requiring regions and forests to justify not using them in revising their plans, the rule leaves their use to the discretion to the responsible official.

    Recommendation: To institutionalize the lessons learned about the key elements of broad-scale assessments, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to make further revisions to the agency's planning regulations. These revisions should make clear that broad-scale ecosystem-based assessments must be used in revising forest plans unless the region(s) and forests can justify their omission. The revisions should also provide that when a decision is made to conduct an assessment, the region(s) and forests must prepare a strategy that identifies, among other things: (1) how the assessment will be linked to the forest plan's revision; (2) how the public and other governmental entities will participate in the revision process; (3) what objectives the assessment will meet and what products it will generate, including those of the highest priority; and (4) how much the assessment will cost, how funding will be secured for it, and what is likely to happen if full funding is not available.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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