Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wildland Fire Management: Actions by Federal Agencies and Congress Could Mitigate Rising Fire Costs and Their Effect on Other Agency Programs

This tesitmony by Robin M. Nazzaro, Director Natural Resources and Environment, published as Government Accountability Office Report (GAO-09-444T) dated April 6, 2009 states that sharply rising costs of managing wildland fires have led the Forest Service and Interior agencies to transfer funds from other programs to help pay for fire suppression and, according to agency officials and others, may also be reducing the total funds available to agency programs unrelated to fire.

As GAO has reported, there are several steps the agencies could take, and actions Congress could consider, that could mitigate the rising costs of wildland fire management and its effect on the agencies’ other programs.

>Although the agencies have, among other actions, improved decision-support tools for helping officials select appropriate strategies for fighting individual wildland fires, the agencies continue to lack both an agencywide strategy for containing fire suppression costs and a broader long-term wildland fire management strategy that identifies options, along with associated funding, for reducing excess vegetation and responding to fires—what GAO has termed a cohesive strategy.

>The agencies could develop a better method of estimating the suppression funds requested, as GAO recommended in 2004. Better estimates in a given year could reduce the likelihood that the agencies would need to transfer funds from other accounts, yet the agencies continue to use an estimation method with known problems.

>In addition, Congress may wish to consider establishing a reserve account to fund emergency wildland firefighting, which could reduce the need for the agencies to transfer funds. The advantages and disadvantages of several alternative funding approaches were discussed in GAO’s 2004 report. Congress considered at least two bills in 2008 proposing establishment of a reserve account, but neither bill passed. One of those bills was reintroduced in March 2009.

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