Forest Service Decision-Making:

A Framework for Improving Performance

RCED-97-71: Published: Apr 29, 1997. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 1997.

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Pursuant to congressional requests, GAO reviewed the Forest Service's decisionmaking process, focusing on: (1) the inadequate attention that the Forest Service has given to improving the process; (2) the lack of agreement, both inside and outside the agency, on how it is to resolve conflicts among competing uses on its lands; (3) unresolved interagency issues that transcend its administrative boundaries and jurisdiction; and (4) differences in the requirements of laws that help frame its decisionmaking.

GAO noted that: (1) some of the inefficiency in developing forest plans and reaching project-level decisions, as well as the ineffectiveness in achieving the plans' objectives, has occurred because the Forest Service has not given adequate attention to improving its decisionmaking process, including improving accountability for its performance; (2) as a result, the Forest Service: (a) must request more funds to accomplish fewer objectives during the yearly budget and appropriation process; and (b) has not corrected long-standing deficiencies within its decisionmaking process that have contributed to increased costs and time and/or the inability to achieve planned objectives; (3) strengthening accountability for performance within the Forest Service and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of its decisionmaking is contingent on establishing long-term strategic goals that are based on clearly defined mission priorities; (4) however, agreement does not exist on the agency's long-term strategic goals; (5) this lack of agreement is the result of a more fundamental disagreement, both inside and outside the Forest Service, over which uses the agency is to emphasize under its broad multiple-use and sustained-yield mandate and how best to ensure the long-term sustainability of these uses; (6) issues that transcend the agency's administrative boundaries and jurisdiction also affect the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency's decisionmaking; (7) in particular, the Forest Service has had difficulty reconciling the administrative boundaries of the national forests with the boundaries of natural systems, such as watersheds and vegetative and animal communities, both in planning and in assessing the effects of federal and nonfederal activities on the environment; (8) finally, the requirements of planning and environmental laws, enacted primarily during the 1960s and 1970s, have not been harmonized; (9) differences among the requirements of various laws and their differing judicial interpretations require some issues to be analyzed or reanalyzed at different stages in the Forest Service's decisionmaking process without any clear sequence leading to their timely resolution; (10) additional differences among the statutorily required approaches for protecting various resources have also sometimes been difficult to reconcile; and (11) however, GAO believes that statutory changes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Forest Service's decisionmaking process cannot be identified until agreement is first reached on the agency's mission priorities.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Senate report (105-56) accompanying the bill (H.R. 2107) funding the Forest Service in fiscal year 1998 includes language barring further long-range planning requirements under the Renewable Resources Planning Act, thus eliminating the duplicate reporting requirement.

    Matter: In light of the current tight budget climate, the annual competition for scarce resources within the Forest Service, and the questionable value of the agency's current long-term strategic plan, the Congress may wish to consider amending the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act to eliminate its requirement that the Forest Service develop a strategic plan covering a period of a decade or more. The agency would still be required to develop a long-term strategic plan covering a period of at least 5 years to comply with the requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service's November 9, 2000, revised planning regulations did not address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Because the Forest Service has proposed removing from its forest plans measurable objectives for goods and services, such as quantities of wood for lumber and forage for livestock and numbers of opportunities for recreation, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief, Forest Service, to identify how the agency will link its long-term strategic goal of providing multiple benefits to satisfy people's needs for uses, values, products, and services within the capabilities of ecosystems with its annual performance goals and measures for gauging the progress made toward achieving the long-term goal and holding line managers accountable for their performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In late 1997, in response to a cut in its appropriation, CEQ eliminated its "NEPA Reinvention" project under which it had intended to address this recommendation, stating it could no longer afford to continue the project.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Council on Environmental Quality's (CEQ) planned multiyear effort to reinvent the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969's (NEPA) implementation improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the NEPA process, the Chairman, CEQ, should change CEQ's regulations implementing NEPA to require, rather than merely allow, federal agencies to tier plans and projects to broader-scoped studies.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Council on Environmental Quality

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: CEQ has recently announced that it will no longer pursue NEPA reinvention due to a reduction in its funding.

    Recommendation: To ensure that CEQ's planned multiyear effort to reinvent NEPA's implementation improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the NEPA process, the Chairman, CEQ, should change CEQ's regulations and guidance implementing NEPA to improve interagency coordination, identify a baseline of comparable environmental and socioeconomic data that are needed for agencies to implement the act, and assume or assign responsibility for collecting, managing, and making the data available to other users.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Council on Environmental Quality


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