In an effort to bring transparency and accountability surrounding actions taken by land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation requiring agencies to accurately report the amount of hazardous fuels removed on public lands and the effectiveness of such measures in preventing catastrophic wildfires.
Passed nearly unanimously (406-4), the Accurately Counting Risk Elimination Solutions (ACRES) Act mandates the Secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior to detail the acreage where hazardous fuel reduction activities took place, the effectiveness in its reduction of wildfire risk, what methods were used and the cost per acre to do so, and – importantly – to distinguish treatments that are near communities most at-risk to the threat of wildfires. The legislation requires the reports be made public and instructs the agencies to implement standardized procedures for tracking such data.
The transparency-driven legislation, led by Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI) who serves as Chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands, comes on the heels of a damning report by NBC News: “The Forest Service is overstating its wildfire prevention progress to Congress despite decades of warnings not to.”
According to the NBC News report:
“Over the past 20 years, leading federal oversight agencies have repeatedly criticized how the Forest Service calculates its progress in eliminating the trees and brush that fuel dangerous fires — one of the key strategies for combating the wildfire crisis — calling its annual reporting of acres treated to reduce risk ‘misleading’ and ‘inaccurate,’ and recommending changes.”
NBC News’ analysis of U.S. Forest Service records shows that the agency has counted many of the same acres in its risk-reduction goals two to six times – and in some cases, up to dozens of times. USFS has reported a reduction of hazardous fuels on 40 million acres of land over the past 15 years, but the report notes that figure may be overstated by as much as 21% across the nation.
“Yet the measure has remained the service’s main metric, contributing to a system that experts say has long incentivized not the most effective and important risk reduction work, but the cheapest,” the NBC News report goes on to say.
These false figures not only misinform federal land management decision-making, but crucially, they harm the ability of states and local communities to handle their own wildfire prevention measures. According to the Congressional Research Service, 61.9% of Idaho’s acreage is federally owned; 29% of Montana; 28.6% of Washington state; and 46.7% of Wyoming. Altogether, that is just over 101,000,000 acres of land owned and managed by the federal government in the Mountain States.
As states and communities battle the impacts of catastrophic wildfires and manage the other state and local public lands in their states, it is incumbent upon federal agencies to provide the most accurate and honest information regarding this work. The ACRES Act seeks to ensure agencies do so.
Bill Imbergamo, Executive Director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, said of the legislation:
“This bill will give the American people a more accurate accounting of how much progress Federal land managers are making in addressing our wildfire crisis… and the public is entitled to know what these agencies are up to.”
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own Inspector General warned in a 2016 report, “Congress and [USFS] management run the risk of making funding and prioritization decisions based on inaccurate information.” Chairman Bruce Westerman (R-AR) of the Natural Resources Committee said the ACRES Act rightly puts the goal of “holding federal agencies and bureaucrats responsible and accountable into action.” The bill now awaits action by the U.S. Senate.