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Highlights

Decades of fire suppression, as well as changing land management practices, have caused vegetation to accumulate and become altered on federal lands. Concerns about the effects of wildland fires have increased efforts to reduce fuels on federal lands. These efforts also have environmental effects. Congressional requesters asked GAO to (1) describe effects from fires on the environment, (2) assess the information gathered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on such effects, and (3) assess the agencies' approaches to environmental risks associated with reducing fuels.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to develop a monitoring plan to implement the agencies' framework approved in May 2004 and include a pilot program for testing on Forest Service and BLM lands the applicability of, and resource needs associated with, the burn severity mapping and data tool developed by the National Park Service.
Closed - Implemented
The Wildland Fire Leadership Council approved a monitoring plan for burn severity. Part of that recommendation was use of multiple-frame (year) remote sensing data to distinguish among levels of burn severity (low, medium, and high).
Department of the Interior To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to develop a monitoring plan to implement the agencies' framework approved in May 2004 and include a pilot program for testing on Forest Service and BLM lands the applicability of, and resource needs associated with, the burn severity mapping and data tool developed by the National Park Service.
Closed - Implemented
The Wildland Fire Leadership Council approved a monitoring plan for burn severity. Part of that recommendation was use of multiple-frame (year) remote sensing data to distinguish among levels of burn severity (low, medium, and high).
Department of Agriculture To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to develop and issue guidance, in consultation with experts inside and outside the agencies, that formalizes a framework for systematically assessing landscape-level risks to ecosystems from wildland fires.
Closed - Implemented
Beginning in 2007, the Forest Service adapted its Ecosystem Management Decision Support (EMDS) system to encompass the three elements of a risk assessment: fuel hazard (vegetation condition), fire potential (climate, dryness, lightning, etc.), and values at risk. In 2007, the Forest Service used this system to allocate fuel reduction funds from the Washington office to its regional offices; in 2008, the Forest Service again allocated funds to the regions using EMDS, and requested that the regions use it to allocate funds to national forests. According to Forest Service officials, the agency is further working to develop a tool that will allow forests to prioritize their projects at the landscape level by enabling them to better assess the likelihood of fire occurring in particular locations. The Forest Service has coordinated its development and use of the EMDS system with BLM and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC). Based on the Forest Service's use of the risk-based EMDS system to allocate funds, and its commitment to developing this program in coordination with BLM and WFLC, we believe that the recommendation is implemented.
Department of the Interior To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to develop and issue guidance, in consultation with experts inside and outside the agencies, that formalizes a framework for systematically assessing landscape-level risks to ecosystems from wildland fires.
Closed - Implemented
BLM has begun using the Forest Service-developed system called Ecosystem Management Decision Support (EMDS). EMDS is based on the three elements of a risk assessment: fuel hazard (vegetation condition), fire potential (climate, dryness, lightning, etc.), and values at risk. After adapting EMDS to better reflect vegetative conditions on BLM land, BLM used EMDS to allocate a portion of its fuel reduction funds to its state offices in FY 2008 and will use the system to allocate all of its FY 2009 funds. BLM has also coordinated its use of EMDS with the Forest Service and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC). Based on BLM's use of the risk-based EMDS system to allocate funds, and its commitment to developing this program in coordination with the Forest Service and WFLC, we believe that the recommendation is implemented.
Department of Agriculture To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to clarify existing guidance, working with CEQ and taking into account any lessons learned from the CEQ demonstration program, on the assessment and documentation of the risks of environmental effects associated with not conducting fuel reduction projects.
Closed - Not Implemented
The agency disagreed with this recommendation.
Department of the Interior To improve the agencies' ability to identify and manage the actual and potential effects of wildland fires on the environment, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, after consulting with the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, should direct the Forest Service and BLM to clarify existing guidance, working with CEQ and taking into account any lessons learned from the CEQ demonstration program, on the assessment and documentation of the risks of environmental effects associated with not conducting fuel reduction projects.
Closed - Not Implemented
The agency disagreed with this recommendation.

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