GRANTS PASS, Ore. The U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior need to develop a long-term wildfire strategy that gives Congress a better idea how much money is really needed to thin forests and where the work is needed most, the Government Accountability Office said.
“While the agencies have adopted various strategy documents to address the nation’s wildland fire problems, none of these documents constitutes a cohesive strategy that explicitly identifies the long-term options and related funding needed to reduce fuels in national forests and rangelands and to respond to wildland fire threats,” said a GAO report made public Friday.
The report, the latest in a series from the investigative arm of Congress on the continuing threat of wildfire, noted that a Forest Service team concluded in 2002 that reducing the wildfire risks to communities and ecosystems would require $1.4 billion a year for a few years, triple the current spending level.
With 40 percent of federal land 190 million acres at risk of wildfire and the size and intensity of wildfires growing in recent years, GAO urged the Forest Service and Interior to come up with the strategy and cost estimates in time for planning the fiscal year 2006 budget.
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and Assistant Interior Secretary P. Lynn Scarlett both said in letters responding to a draft of the report that two essential elements needed to develop such a strategy are not finished yet.
They said a $40 million program known as LANDFIRE, a system of maps and computer models that more accurately identifies wildfire risk areas and wildfire behavior, and an analysis of fire programs would likely be ready in time for the fiscal 2007 budget analysis.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who requested the GAO report, did not immediately return telephone calls for comment.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who also sits on the subcommittee, said the tight budget climate makes it difficult to significantly increase wildfire funding, but suggested better information on the cost-effectiveness of wildfire prevention and the economic boost of employing people to thin the nation’s forests could change people’s minds.
“They said at the current rate of spending we’re losing ground,” DeFazio said of the report from his Springfield home. “Fuels are building up more quickly than we are reducing them. Obviously we are protecting selected areas. But they said if we continue down that path of underinvesting and not meeting the need, we have to be much better targeted.”
Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service as agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment, told the committee Thursday that the 4.2 million acres of federal lands treated with thinning and prescribed burning to reduce fuels in 2004 exceeded goals, and the president’s budget request includes $867 million to prevent wildfires and restore forest and rangeland health.
Rey said projects target the areas with the greatest risk and techniques with the greatest efficiency, and 97 percent of the projects for fiscal year 2005 are in areas identified as having high or highest wildfire risk.
The report said the government has made significant progress in the past five years through the National Fire Plan by identifying rural communities that need protection, increasing the funding for thinning on national forests and fighting wildfires, and improving wildfire research, data, and coordination. It also noted enactment in 2003 of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act to reduce fuel buildups in forests.
Funding for overall wildfire management went from $1 billion in 1999 to a high of $3.2 billion in 2003, dropped to $2.7 billion in 2004, and the 2005 budget request was $2.4 billion, the report said.
Spending for fuel reduction, accomplished by forest thinning and fires set to consume small trees and brush, has gone from $98.8 million in 1999 to $442.2 million in 2004, with $475.5 million requested for 2005, the report said.