Forest Service criticized for lack of criteria to select hazardous fuels reduction projects

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The allocation of funding for hazardous fuels projects and how the U.S. Forest Service sets its priorities for this work was questioned in a report last month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General spent more than year reviewing the program and visiting regional offices, national forest offices and several ranger districts, including two on the San Bernardino National Forest.

In general, the OIG did not find adequate data or procedures to support the priority and funding decisions. However, the Tom Tidwell, Chief of the Forest Service, said in his response to the report, “The Forest Service generally concurs with the findings and recommendations and appreciates the time and effort that went into the report.” He also set June 30, 2017, as the date for implementing the changes or improvements.

Basically, the Department’s OIG is concerned that the Forest Service is not spending the money appropriated for hazardous fuel reduction projects in the areas most in need of treatment. If priorities are not clear and consistent across the nation, the  result could be “placing areas at increased risk of catastrophic wildland fire,” the OIG suggested.

In addition, the OIG found several instances of inaccurate reporting and accounting, which seems to call the entire program’s results into question.

Over three fiscal years, from 2012 to 2014, the Forest Service spent more than $6 billion preparing for and fighting wildfires. Projects funded to reduce hazardous fuels are supposed to contribute to the reduction and possible intensity of these fires.

However, the OIG has found that the Forest Service, which agreed with 10 of the OIG recommendations, does not have a system or process to adequately asses the wildfire risk of where these funds are being spent.

The system the Forest Service uses only “assists in determining funding for regions and their forest and does not assign priority to individual hazardous fuel reduction projects for completion,” the OIG report stated. This funding was intended to “protect at-risk communities and watersheds” and the Forest Service cannot confirm, which projects are being funded.

“[Forest Service] unit did not document rational behind project selection,” the report authors wrote. None of the ranger districts, which were part of the study, “documented why they implemented one hazardous fuels reduction project in the [wildland urban interface] over a different hazardous fuels reduction treatment in the WUI.”

The OIG investigators did state that three regions, including the Pacific Southwest, had started to move in this direction. During the investigation, the Mountain Top and Front Country ranger districts in the San Bernardino National Forest were visited. However, no specific comments referring to this forest or these districts were part of the report.

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