WASHINGTON - The Forest Service and Interior Department should develop better ways of judging the effectiveness of millions of dollars spent reviving forests and other lands damaged by wildfires, congressional investigators say.
Local land managers do not always monitor the results of fire rehabilitation efforts and when they do, fail to share the results with regional or national offices, the General Accounting Office found.
As a result, neither the Forest Service nor Interior Department nor the investigators can determine if those efforts, which cost a total of $310 million in the 2000 and 2001 budget years, helped prevent erosion and restore scorched areas.
"The treatments Interior and the Forest Service use to protect and restore burnt lands appear, on the face of it, to be reasonable," the report said.
"For the most part, however, Interior and the Forest Service are approving treatment plans without comprehensive information on the extent to which a treatment is likely to be effective given the severity of the wildfire, the weather, soil and terrain."
In a response to the report, Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey and Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett agreed that more could be done to measure the effectiveness. They said the agencies have been working together to put standards in place.
The report released late Wednesday looked at a sampling of some of the Forest Service and Interior Department's largest rehabilitation projects, worth $84 million. In many cases, officials either did not follow up on the effectiveness of the procedures or simply made a cursory look.
Last year, the second-worst fire season in 50 years blackened more than 7 million acres of forests and rangeland. Just $27.1 million was appropriated for forest rehabilitation in the current budget year, down from $210 million obligated to the program in the two previous years combined, Rey and Scarlett noted.
On Thursday, the House Agriculture Committee approved legislation intended to reduce the risk of future wildfires by streamlining the process for appeals that Rey and other Forest Service officials say has prevented efforts to remove excess trees from forests. The measure also would speed up the environmental analysis process.
"Make no mistake, the exploding threat of large scale catastrophic wildfires and massive insect and disease epidemics combine to pose the single largest challenge facing federal land and resources managers today," said Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., the sponsor of the legislation.
Environmental groups say McInnis' legislation limits citizen input into land management decisions, fails to protect homes that border forests, and makes it easier for logging companies to cut down trees in national forests.
The legislation now moves to the full House.