GAO Report Concludes Healthy Forests Restoration Act Beneficial to Nation's Forests; Additional Fuels Reduction Needed for Long-Term Success
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
Forestry subcommittee to hold oversight hearing on report this week
WASHINGTON, DC - The Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday released a report, Wildland Fire Management: Important Progress Has Been Made, but Challenges Remain to Completing a Cohesive Strategy, that recognized important progress in responding to potential wildland fires by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) in conjunction with Congress. The report concluded that the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) has directly contributed to that progress.
The House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, which is chaired by HFRA co-author U.S. Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR), requested the GAO report. Walden will be holding an oversight hearing on its findings in his subcommittee this Thursday, February 17 at 11:00 AM EST. The hearing will be broadcast via the internet at http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/.
"This report confirms what we had hoped to hear on many fronts, and what we worked so hard to achieve as we developed HFRA. HFRA is in fact working well - it allows our federal land managers to actively manage forests by addressing dead, dying and diseased trees," Walden said. "Removing substantial fuel loads from our forests helps prevent catastrophic fire and better protects species, watersheds and neighboring communities that call them home. The Congress provided the Forest Service, the Department of the Interior and local communities the tools necessary to make significant improvements in the health of our forests."
"However, we have only scratched the surface," he continued. "As the GAO report recognizes, the long-term health of our forests relies on additional fuel reduction options and funding to reduce the risks that catastrophic fire poses to our nation's ecosystems, communities and federal budgetary resources. I agree with the GAO and Western Governor's Association on this need, and will continue to roll up my sleeves with the agencies to work toward this result."
"I appreciate the work of the GAO in producing a report of this depth and nature," he added. "As a lifelong Oregonian, I prefer our forests green, not black. I look forward to having GAO present their findings and recommendations to the subcommittee this Thursday and learning what more we can do to improve forest health."
The report is a follow-up to a 1999 GAO report submitted to the Subcommittee titled Western National Forests: A Cohesive Strategy is Needed to Address Catastrophic Wildfire, which stated that "the most extensive and serious problem related to the health of national forests in the interior West is the overaccumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires."
This current report finds that the positive movements in wildland fire management described by GAO include adoption of national strategies, prioritization of protecting communities in wildland-urban interfaces (WUI), increased funding, strengthened coordination and collaboration, and strengthened accountability. In 2004, USFS and DOI surpassed their fuels reduction targets, treating over four million acres.
Enacted into law in 2003, HFRA contains a variety of provisions to speed up hazardous fuels reduction projects on federal forestlands at risk of wildland fire and/or insect and disease epidemics by streamlining the environmental review and appeals process. The measure authorized forest-thinning projects with a concentration on WUI, municipal watersheds and critical species habitat. Additionally, HFRA required judges to consider the "balance of harms" on a forest, community or watershed if treatment projects are not implemented, but still affords citizens the right to appeal proposed government actions.
While the GAO finds that significant strides have been made toward the reduction of fuels in our forestlands, their report also indicates that identifying long-term fuels reduction options and needed funding is critical to completing a comprehensive strategy. While over four million acres were successfully treated last year, there are still 190 million in need of fuels reduction to reduce the risks that wildland fire poses to the nation's communities and ecosystems. Additionally, there is acreage that has already been subject to the devastation of a catastrophic event such as fire, hurricane or bug infestation that now needs to be treated and rehabilitated so that the trees, water, habitat and surrounding environments can be restored to a healthy state.
"I will maintain a continued dialogue with Agriculture Secretary Johanns, Interior Secretary Norton and my colleagues in the Congress as we take further strides toward ensuring the long-term health of our treasured national forests," said Walden. "It is up to us as lawmakers to provide the resources and streamlined processes that will enable our federal forest managers to become the best possible steward of our lands."