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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.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture 1. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
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.
Department of Agriculture 2. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
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.

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