Western National Forests:

A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire Threats

RCED-99-65: Published: Apr 2, 1999. Publicly Released: Apr 16, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) the extent and seriousness of forest-health-related problems in national forests in the interior West; (2) the status of efforts by the Forest Service to address the most serious of these problems; and (3) barriers to successfully addressing these problems and options for overcoming them.

GAO noted that: (1) the most extensive and serious problem related to the health of national forests in the interior West is the overaccumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires; (2) according to the Forest Service, 39 million acres in national forests in the interior West are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire; (3) past management practices, especially the Forest Service's decades-old policy of putting out wildfires in the national forests, disrupted the historical occurrence of frequent low-intensity fires, which had periodically removed flammable undergrowth without significantly damaging larger trees; (4) because this normal cycle of fire was disrupted, vegetation has accumulated, creating high levels of fuels for catastrophic wildfires and transforming much of the region into a tinderbox; (5) the number of large wildfires, and of acres burned by them, has increased over the last decade, as have the costs of attempting to put them out; (6) these fires not only compromise the forests' ability to provide timber, outdoor recreation, clean water, and other resources, but they also pose increasingly grave risks to human health, safety, property, and infrastructure, especially along the boundaries of forests, where population has grown significantly in recent years; (7) during the 1990s, the Forest Service began to address the unintended consequences of its policy of putting out wildfires; (8) in 1997, it announced its goal to improve forest health by resolving the problems of uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfires in national forests by the end of fiscal year 2015; (9) to accomplish this goal, it has: (a) initiated a program to monitor forest health; (b) refocused its wildland fire management program to increase the number of acres on which it reduces the accumulated vegetation that forms excessive fuels; and (c) restructured its budget to better ensure that funds are available for reducing these fuels; (10) Congress has supported the Forest Service's efforts by increasing the funds for reducing fuels and authorizing a multiyear program to better assess problems and solutions; (11) the Forest Service has not yet developed a cohesive strategy for addressing several factors that present significant barriers to improving the health of the national forests by reducing fuels; and (12) many acres of national forests in the interior West may remain at high risk of uncontrollable wildfire at the end of fiscal year 2015.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The strategy was published in the Federal Register on November 9, 2000.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to develop, and formally communicate to Congress, a cohesive strategy for reducing and maintaining accumulated fuels on national forests of the interior West at acceptable levels. The strategy should include: (1) specific steps for: (a) acquiring the data needed to establish meaningful performance measures and goals for reducing fuels; (b) identifying ways of better reconciling different fuel reduction approaches with other stewardship objectives; and (c) identifying changes in incentives and statutorily defined contracting procedures that would better facilitate the accomplishment of fuel reduction goals; (2) a schedule indicating dates for completing each of these steps; and (3) estimates of the potential and likely overall and annual costs of accomplishing this strategy based on different options identified in the strategy as being available for doing so.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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