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JULY 15, 2002
8:00 AM
CONTACT:  The Wilderness Society
Gary Kozel 707-833-1381, e-mail:
Forest Service Continues to Blow Smoke:
Why the USFS Report on Appeals is Wrong
WASHINGTON - July 15 - The U.S. Forest Service released a report on July 10, 2002 claiming conservation groups have obstructed Forest Service projects that would have protected homes and communities from wildfire. The Forest Service report is a poor attempt to shift blame. The Agency bears responsibility for its mismanagement and delays in protecting communities, and its rhetoric will neither protect homes nor prevent future fire dangers to communities.

Conservationists Don't Block Fire Prevention Work: When the 2002 fire season began, the Forest Service, conservative politicians and the timber industry were swift to blame conservationists for obstructing fire prevention efforts. These claims were quickly proven false, however, by an August 31, 2001 General Accounting Office Report that demonstrated that over 99 percent of fuel reduction projects proposed by the Forest Service for fiscal year 2001 went through without appeal, and none were litigated. The Forest Service proposed implementing 1,671 hazardous fuel reduction projects for that year. Of those, only 20 (about one percent) had been appealed by ANY interested party, including recreation groups, conservationists, industry interests or individuals.1 During the past two years, The Wilderness Society has filed only three administrative appeals or lawsuits challenging Forest Service thinning or salvage logging projects.

The Forest Service vs. GAO: The August 2001 GAO report looked at projects that would directly benefit communities at risk from forest fires. To counter the clear and convincing numbers from the GAO report, the Forest Service issued a different report that utilized Enron-inspired accounting.

-- Removes Prescribed Burn Projects: The Forest Service fails to consider nearly all prescribed burn projects, despite the fact that both the National Fire Plan and the Western Governors Association have endorsed pre-planned fires as a vital tool to reduce wildfire risk. Conservationists also strongly support prescribed burning.

-- Includes Projects Not Designed to Reduce Fire Risk: The Forest Service includes all "thinning" projects, even those not designed to reduce fire risk or protect communities. Conservationists believe that our limited resources must be focused on the areas closest to communities to protect them from wildfire -- not on projects out in the backcountry - far from homes.

An April 1999 GAO review of fire threats to western forests found that "most of the trees that need to be removed to reduce accumulated fuels are small in diameter and have little or no commercial value." The GAO reported, however, that "forest officials told us they tend to (1) focus on areas with high-value commercial timber rather than on areas with high fire hazards or (2) include more large, commercially valuable trees in a timber sale than are necessary to reduce accumulated fuels." (2)

-- Forest Service Does Not Include Projects "Not Subject to Appeal:" The Forest Service report does not consider any project "not subject to appeal" -- even though such projects are still subject to legal challenge. As the August 2001 GAO report demonstrates, NONE of the projects that GAO investigated during FY 2001 were litigated.

The Forest Service's real record: Recent reports by the GAO and USFS Inspector General show that the Forest Service's record on fire prevention is plagued by mismanagement and delay:

-- The Forest Service is not focusing its work on protecting at-risk communities. During fiscal year 2002 just over a third of the acres where the Forest Service planned to reduce hazardous fuels will be in and around communities. In 2003, the agency's plan is for only 55 percent of acres mitigated to be in "wildland-urban areas." (3) Instead of protecting communities, the Forest Service continues to favor projects far from homes or towns.

-- Federal agencies still have not identified communities facing a high fire risk. A January 2002 GAO report notes that federal agencies have failed to identify and prioritize high-risk communities and "therefore, it is not possible to determine if the $796 million appropriated for hazardous fuel reduction in fiscal years 2001 and 2002 is targeted to the communities and other areas at highest risk of severe wildfires."(4)

-- The Forest Service is misspending fire fighting funds: A USFS Inspector General's report from November 2001 found that the Bitterroot Forest in Montana, for example, had misspent roughly $2.5 million of funding designated by Congress to implement the National Fire Plan. The funding instead went for projects such as commercial timber sales and permits to harvest mushrooms. (5)

-- Federal agencies lack a coordinated management plan, required seven years ago: A March 2002 GAO report notes that "over half of all federal land management units (1,384) still do not have fire management plans that meet the requirements of the 1995 fire management policy." (6) The report further observes that these management units have not identified high-risk areas, specifically communities in the wildland-urban interface that are the most threatened by fire.

-- Federal Agencies Have No Standard to Measure Results: The March 2002 GAO report also notes that "although the Forest Service and Interior have received substantial additional funding, they have not yet developed performance measures to determine the extent that these additional resources have resulted in more effective fire fighting as envisioned under the National Fire Plan." (7)

What are appeals? The appeals process allows interested citizens to challenge Forest Service management policies and projects without having to go to court. Appeals are less expensive and faster than lawsuits and result in only a minor delay -- 65 days when denied. As U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy has explained, the appeals process serves a very legitimate function: "Ultimately its force is to allow the democratic process of participation in governmental decisions the full breadth and scope to which citizens are entitled in a participatory democracy." (8)

The Wilderness Society and appeals: During the past two years, The Wilderness Society has filed only three administrative appeals or lawsuits challenging Forest Service thinning or salvage logging projects: (1) Bitterroot Burned Area Recovery (BAR) Project, Bitterroot National Forest, Montana. Lawsuit filed in December 2001 in response to effort by USDA Undersecretary Mark Rey's attempt to bypass the administrative appeals process for the BAR project. The Montana U.S. District Court ruled that Rey violated the law. The case was settled in February 2002.

(2) Upper South Platte Recovery Project, Pike San Isabel National Forest, Colorado. Administrative appeal filed in September 2001 due to lack of information about impacts to roadless areas. Conservationists did not challenge the majority of the project. A tentative settlement was reached in December. The Forest Service issued a new project decision in February, which was appealed by both conservationists and the timber industry.

(3) Bark Beetle Project, Pike-San Isabel National Forest, Colorado. Administrative appeal filed in May 2002 to contest logging of large trees in a roadless area. The Forest Service acknowledges that this is not designed as a fuel-reduction project.

For more information: Visit our specially designed Web site: Wilderness Society staff members who can help include Greg Aplet (303-650-5818, ext. 104), Suzanne Jones (303-650-5818, ext. 102), Jay Watson (415-518-2604), Bob Ekey (406-586-1600), and Craig Gehrke (208-343-8153).

(1) General Accounting Office, "Fuel Reduction Projects." GAO-01-1114R. August 31, 2001. (2) General Accounting Office, "Western National Forests." GAO/RCED-99-65, page 43. April 1999. (3) USDA Forest Service, "FY 2003 President's Budget Overview," page B-13. February 4, 2002. (4) General Accounting Office, "Severe Wildland Fires." GAO-02-259, page 4. January 2002. (5) USDA, Forest Service Inspector General, "Forest Service National Fire Plan Implementation." Report No. 08601-26-F. November 2001. (6) General Accounting Office, "Wildland Fire Management." GAO-02-158, page 2. March 2002. (7) Ibid, pages 3-4. (8) Order in The Wilderness Society v. Rey, No. 01-219, slip op. at 18 (D. Mont. Jan. 7, 2002).


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