The Forest Service has repeatedly told Congress that a very large portion of the National Forest System is in poor forest health and is highly vulnerable to severe wildfires. As many as 80 million acres, or 41 percent of the National Forest System, is at high risk.
Congress responded by giving the agency billions of dollars to do more forest management. The Biden Administration is also implementing a 10-year wildfire strategy that promises to double the amount of acres treated on federal lands.
How can we be sure our tax dollars are spent wisely, and the Forest Service is actually treating more acres and making progress towards managing our forests and protecting our communities?
If you’re cynical, you’re not alone. Federal oversight agencies have criticized how the Forest Service calculates its progress — calling its annual reporting of acres treated to reduce risk “misleading” and “inaccurate.”
An NBC News investigation last year found the agency counted many of the same pieces of land toward its risk-reduction goals from two to six times, and, in a few cases, dozens of times. Based on public records, investigators found the Forest Service may be overstating its hazardous fuels reduction efforts by as much as 30 percent.
Some members of Congress are seeking more transparency in how the Forest Service tracks and reports its forest management efforts.
Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-WI) recently introduced H.R. 1567, the Accurately Counting Risk Elimination Solutions (ACRES) Act,that allows the public to track the progress, costs and effectiveness of forest management work on federal lands.
“Decades of mismanagement of our federal lands have left our forests overstocked with trees and created tinderbox conditions – ultimately fueling catastrophic wildfires across the West. There is a better and active way to manage our public lands, and that starts with holding our federal land management agencies accountable by requiring accurate reporting on the effectiveness of their work in fuel reduction. The ACRES Act will ensure our federal agencies are not providing the fuel for more wildfires to spark,” Tiffany said.
The ACRES Act requires the Secretaries of the Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior to:
- Detail the actual, accurate acreage where hazardous fuel reduction activities took place and the region or system unit in which the acres were located.
- Distinguish between treatments that occurred within the wildland-urban interface, areas accurately reflecting treatments near communities that are most at risk to the threat of wildfires.
- Show the effectiveness of the hazardous fuels reduction work in reducing wildfire risk.
- Convey what methods were used to reduce hazardous fuels and the cost per acre to do so.
- Make the report publicly available on USDA and DOI websites.
The ACRES Act also requires the Secretaries to implement standardized procedures for tracking data for hazardous fuels reduction. This includes:
- Data reviews of the accuracy and timely input of the data used to track hazardous fuels, as well as verification that this data directly correlates to fuel reduction activity.
- Analysis of short and long-term effectiveness of hazardous fuel reduction on reducing the risk of wildfires.
As the public demands- and expects- more proactive forest management on their public lands, the Acres Act can offer more transparency and accountability to ensure healthier forests and safer communities.