Audit faults forest program
by Noelle Straub, Star-Tribune
October 09, 2006
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Forest Service has not
developed national guidelines to assess the risks
communities face from wildfires and is unable to
ensure that the most important fire prevention
projects are funded first, an independent
government audit has found.
And while the majority of catastrophic wildfires
occur in the West, nearly 58 percent of the total
acres treated in fiscal year 2004 were in the
southeastern states, the report said.
"The Forest Service cannot clearly identify the
level of risk to communities from wildfire," it
said. "It cannot demonstrate to stakeholders its
accomplishments in reducing those risks with the
The Forest Service agreed with the report's
assessments and vowed to put changes in place by
July 31 next year.
The Inspector General Office of the Agriculture
Department last month released the audit report on
the implementation of the Healthy Forest
Initiative, focusing mainly on programs to reduce
the over-accumulation of vegetation that can fuel
The Forest Service's fiscal year 2006 budget
included $281 million for direct funding to reduce
hazardous fuels, with which the agency plans to
treat as many as 1.8 million acres, the report
But the Forest Service has not developed specific,
national criteria for assessing the level of risk
that communities face from fires or to justify the
selection of one project over another, the report
The agency also lacks the ability to ensure that
the most important projects are funded first, it
said, instead allowing the prioritization of
projects to be at the discretion of individual
"(The) Forest Service relies on field-level
officials to identify communities at risk and
prioritize projects based on their own criteria,
which vary from region to region," it said.
The focus has been on treating as many acres as
possible rather than the highest priority acres,
the report said. Regional foresters' performance
evaluations have been tied to the number of acres
they have treated, the report said, giving
managers incentive to choose the easiest rather
than most important acres to treat.
"There is no control to prevent field units from
treating the easiest and least expensive acres in
order to achieve target acreage levels instead of
treating those acres that will more effectively
reduce risk," it said.
In fiscal year 2004 the southern region treated
more than a million acres, largely through
prescribed burns, a less-expensive method. By
contrast, the intermountain region treated only
59,000 acres, the northern region 86,000 acres and
the Rocky Mountain region 110,000 acres.
"The majority of catastrophic wildfires occur in
the west, but the southeast states treated over 57
percent of the total hazardous fuels acreage in
the United States in FY 2004," the report said.
But although this appears to be an "inappropriate
allocation of resources," there is no way that
determination can be made because the Forest
Service includes such limited information in its
accomplishment reports, the audit said.
The agency's reports on its hazardous fuels
reduction program are "misleading and not
representative of the actual achievements," the
audit said. That's because the agency simply
reports the number of acres it has treated but
does not include information on how much the risk
from wildfire has been reduced.
Also, an acre that has received two different
treatments may be reported twice, as two acres
The Forest Service agreed to add more information,
such as the percent of acres that change condition
class, which measures wildfire risk, breaking down
accomplishments by region, and differentiating
between initial and maintenance treatments and
multiple treatments on the same acres.
The inspector general also recommended that the
Forest Service develop specific, national guidance
for assessing the risks of fires and determining
the benefits of fuels treatment and restoration
The Forest Service agreed. It also vowed to
establish controls to assist the regions in
prioritizing projects so that the most vital
projects happen first. Factors to be evaluated
include the proximity to a community, fuel type,
condition class and others.
The report also called for ensuring funds are
distributed to the area with the highest
concentration of priority projects nationally,
Forest Service officials believe that a new system
called LANDFIRE, which uses satellite imagery to
map the land and models to provide more detailed
information about soil, vegetation, climate and
fire history, will help identify communities most
Congress funded the project in 2002 and a
prototype has already been completed for Montana
and southwestern Utah, the report said.