GAO Study Shows Environmental Laws, Citizen Appeals Not an Impediment to Reducing Wildfire Threat

May 14, 2003
12:00 AM
Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Ranking Member, Senate Energy & Natural Resouces Committee: “Last year, when Congress debated ways to reduce the threat of wildfires on public lands, some of my colleagues claimed that environmental laws, administrative appeals and lawsuits were crippling fuels reduction activities. I asked the General Accounting Office to find out the facts. “Today the GAO released its report, which shows that the vast majority of forest-thinning projects done in the last two years were undertaken without delay. According to the GAO, three out of every four projects moved ahead unchallenged. Of those that were challenged, most were resolved within 90 days. (In fact, even though it has the authority to do so, the Forest Service did not reduce the timeframe for settling a dispute.) What’s more, the GAO noted that a vast majority of acres thinned were excluded from environmental review. “I suppose that there are some who will remain unconvinced, and they will comb this report for a statistic that distorts reality, all in an effort to weaken our environmental laws. For example, I anticipate that some folks will single out the relatively few decisions that the Forest Service reviews on appeal. They may make it seem as if this is the norm rather than the exception. However, a careful, comprehensive analysis of this GAO report makes it plain that a vast majority of forest-thinning projects move ahead without any challenge, and that the 24 percent of projects that are challenged are the most controversial. “These findings validate my view that the major obstacle constraining our thinning efforts is a lack of federal funding, due in part to the Forest Service’s habit of robbing the forest-thinning account to cover other agency costs. The report also points out that the Forest Service continues to focus its thinning efforts in areas far away from homes and communities, which means that the agency is not doing enough to protect people and property. “The Senate soon will resume its debate on forest policy. When it does, the new data provided by GAO will be helpful in framing the discussion accurately and honestly.” # # #