Western National Forests:

Catastrophic Wildfires Threaten Resources and Communities

T-RCED-98-273: Published: Sep 28, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the: (1) extent and seriousness of forest health-related problems on national forests in the interior West; (2) status of the Forest Service's efforts to address the most serious of these problems; and (3) barriers to successfully implementing the agency's efforts.

GAO noted that: (1) it appears that the number of uncontrollable and catastrophically destructive wildfires is the most extensive and serious national forest health-related problem in the interior West; (2) past management practices, especially the Forest Service's decades-old policy of suppressing fire in the national forests, disrupted the historical occurrence of frequent low-intensity fires; (3) as a result, vegetation accumulated, creating high levels of fuels for catastrophic wildfires and transforming much of the region into a tinderbox; (4) the number of large wildfires, and of acres burned by them, has increased over the last decade, as have the costs of attempting to suppress them; (5) 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 safety and property; (6) recently, the Forest Service announced its goal to improve the health of the forests by adequately resolving the problems of uncontrollable, catastrophic wildfires in national forests by the end of fiscal year (FY) 2015; (7) to accomplish this goal, it has, among other things: (a) initiated a program to monitor the forests' health; (b) refocused its wildland fire management program to increase the number of acres on which it reduces accumulated vegetation that forms excessive fuels; and (c) restructured its budget to better ensure that funds are available for reducing these fuels; (8) Congress has supported the agency's efforts by increasing the funds for fuels reduction and authorizing a multiyear program to better assess problems and solutions; (9) because it lacks adequate data, the Forest Service has not yet been able to develop a cohesive strategy for addressing several factors that may present significant barriers to improving the health of the national forests by reducing fuels; (10) as a result, many acres of national forests in the interior West may remain at high risk of uncontrollable wildfire at the end of FY 2015; (11) controlled fires can be used to reduce fuels, but: (a) such fires might get out of control; and (b) there is concern about the effects of their smoke on air quality; (12) as a result, mechanical methods will often be necessary to remove accumulated fuels; and (13) removing accumulated fuels may cost the Forest Service hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

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