Report: US Forest Service is sometimes overstating fuel management accomplishments

Forest thinning in the Umpqua National Forest
Forest thinning project in the Umpqua National Forest. Credit, Oregon State University.

NBC News conducted an investigation into some of the claims and statistics about vegetation management projects that are designed to improve forest health and/or and reduce the threat of wildfires. The emphasis of the very lengthy article about their findings was not so much to question the need or effectiveness of the hazardous fuel reduction projects, but to examine their claims of accomplishments, which are sometimes misleading.

Many fuel management projects on National Forests include multiple treatments of a single area. There can be some combination of thinning, pruning, piling, chipping, or prescribed burning, all considered independently and occurring at different times. In an extreme scenario, if the project was 100 acres and five different treatments occurred, each might be reported as accomplishing 100 acres of fuel treatment. They then tell Congress they treated 500 acres.

The NBC article gave an actual example of a project on the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California near Big Bear Lake. The 173-acre project had multiple treatments. From the article:

They first [step] appeared in 2016, when the Forest Service assigned workers to cut trees to reduce the area’s density. The agency came back two years later, pruning the remaining trees and piling the cut wood across the full 173 acres, then chipping 52 acres of it. A few months later, workers burned 18 acres of the piles.

The pruning, piling, chipping and burning were entered as separate items in the database and the agency reported them as 416 acres of treated land in its 2019 fiscal year totals to Congress. In summer 2021, it burned the remaining 155 acres of piles, reporting them in that year’s totals.

The Forest Service’s efforts ultimately reduced fire risk on 173 acres of land, but they were reported to Congress as 744 acres over four fiscal years.

“These acres are reported six times because we must request funding to accomplish the full suite of activities on the same 173 acres,” said [Wade] Muehlhof, the service’s spokesperson. “Each of these activities needs to be planned and budgeted for annually.”

The Forest Service tells Congress that it reduces wildfire risk on more than 2.5 million acres of its land every year. But this process of recounting the same acres any time more than one type of work is completed means that far less land is protected from damaging fire than is being reported.

NBC estimates that nationwide the FS has overstated accomplishments by 2.5 million acres, or 17 percent. In California the numbers are higher, 27 percent in the past five years, and by roughly 35 percent in the places near the most people, the state’s wildland urban interface areas.

The NBC article was written by Adiel Kaplan, with assistance from Monica Hersher and Joe Murphy.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

32 thoughts on “Report: US Forest Service is sometimes overstating fuel management accomplishments”

  1. Maybe a third party forestry outfit ought to be retained by GAO and do an on the ground ground truthful expedition to see exactly how much is really being done. But then….I woke up

    Signed Gifford

  2. Another shocking but not surprising scenario.
    If you put people in a position where they think they need to cheat, just to get by, that’s what they’re going to do.
    Then again, maybe I could do that, I thinned them acres, then I slashed them acres, did two things, pay me twice?

  3. Are you serious? Each treatment is different from the last, why is this even an issue?

    If an area gets burned multiple times they shouldn’t count the acres? You know you have to treat the area more than once and for the rest of human existence right?

  4. The thing that this report does not state is that treatments that are in a series like this where multiple activities are needed – piling, then burning the piles for example, have an identifier in the reporting system that indicates when the treatment is the “final” treatment in a series. It is important to track the individual activities that occurred on a piece of ground, and important to make sure that the full series of work is completed, especially when additional parts of the work will occur in different years and personnel move around. It is also important to count the work once it has been completed, not once it has been “accomplished”. Some treatments are “accomplished” once a contract to do the work is awarded. Completion means the work has been completed.

  5. Gol-durned lie: “They then tell Congress they treated 500 acres.”

    100 or 500? What’s the difference? They forget that light grows understory, as does soil disturbance. Bonfire piles cook soil organisms, roots, etc. Put some heat sensing plates under and outside the piles and do soil transects. No? I thought so.

  6. Sorry, I forgot to finish the first point. If one tries to do the math, one sees the impossibility of the quantities required. Follow the money.

  7. I’d be curious to know what the total cost was of treating this 173 acres, start to finish. Mainly because I can’t imagine it being cheaper than doing a pre-commercial thinning and chipping of the biomass, which also yields sawlogs and fuel for a co-gen plant.

    But then maybe that’s a non-starter these days, what with the way the city people in Washington D.C. look at things and the many lawyers lined up to sue the Forest Service for not dotting an i or crossing a t in an attempt to actually remove material from the woods for the benefit of mankind instead of burning it.

  8. Whatever the case is here, one point seems painfully obvious: Large fuel loads in our western forests are simply not getting reduced fast enough to help prevent huge, high intensity wildfires. I don’t believe that the Forest Service is the only government agency that’s guilty here. There are others. We really need to move faster with this. For years there were insufficient funds to thin forests and conduct prescribed burns. We do now have a little more money so hopefully we may see some results.

  9. Good point.
    Just for the sake of argument (or comparison), if an agency or a person records that a total of 300 man-hours was budgeted, it does not mean 300 workers at 1 hour each, or 1 person working 300 hours. If the agency budgets thinning this year and slashpile burning next year, just one year should be counted?
    Maybe they need a new term to use instead of total acreage.

  10. Actually a response with no concern for cost or accountability is what is old and tired. Those among us who spent a career in Forestry understand that not all acres are marketable timber making it even more important to know the cost per acre to evaluate cost/benefit. Once again, some folks forget they work for the taxpayer who funds these projects.

    This country needs to return to sustainable forest management that focuses on commercial thinning and logging in areas suitable for timber sales, returning money from sales to fund other management activities and providing forest products for it’s citizens. At the same time, the country needs to return to aggressive initial attack by investing in more tankers and helicopters along with increased ground resources ( overhead, crews, and equipment). This will take time and money for sure but with the climate changing and population density increasing, this is a better solution than costly, labor intensive small projects with little return on investment.

  11. Shakespeare had it right, “Much ado about nothing”
    Congress (The Gaggle of Fools) makes the laws, Agencies try to interpret them so that reporting can be done. The only one who is confused is the clueless who wrote the article.
    Yes the same acre gets reported many times, if it is a problem Congress who establishes the process can fix it, we just follow their BS.

  12. Not to mention using big destructive equipment repeatedly on the same poor site! And how much of a carbon foot print is all this “work”? And how much dangerous air pollution do theses “prescribed” burns of forests and debis cause?

  13. The question nobody is asking is “why is the forest doing these activities?” For example, all these activities (thinning, pruning, piling, burning, etc.) need to be done in sequence over time (and repeated periodically for maintenance) – and they cost real money. But the result is supposed to be a functioning fuel break to reduce wildfire risk, etc. So, did the fuel break get done as planned? That’s the real question that Congress should be asking and the agency reporting on – in addition to the activities and funds spent.

  14. “There are good reasons to do “fuel treatments” for ecological and commercial objectives. But the greatest fuel treatment effect on wildfire behavior is within the fuel treatment area; fuel treatments do not stop extreme wildfires. So let’s call a spade a spade and not pretend that many, or even most fuel treatment projects actually reduce home ignition potential during extreme wildfires.” Jack Cohen quote in

    Keep smiling, it makes people wonder what you have been up to!

  15. 2 plus 2 still does not equal 5! Somebody should be able to come up with a more accurate method of reporting the accomplishments. I am also concerned about counting wildfires and burning out acres as fuel reduction. If they do, maybe that is one reason for bigger and bigger “boxes” every year.

  16. No, aggressive initial attack and past logging practices are what helped get us in this mess. Yes, we work for the taxpayers but sustainable practices does not mean that someone has to show a quarterly profit. If there is merchantable timber and if getting rid of some of it helps us reach our ecological restoration goals then fine.

    The final goal is not money though it’s making sure we keep our forests in as close to a natural state for everyone, now and in the future. That includes Rx and wildfire to meet those goals, especially considering that we now know fire is an integral part of most of these forest systems.

  17. I have wondered that myself and have now been retired for 16 years nothing would surprise me. In the new math I hear that 2+2 does equal 5 – LOL

  18. The last 45years the spotted owl has controlled the forster in n.mex. before,that the forest was well managed in the use of loving they cleaned up after themselves, and burned the underbrush,and abig fire was controlled as they went.on large fires at all. The fires today are thousands of areas and it took 150 years to grow. I have been hunting the state of New mexico for 74years ,I thank there is something wrong with the system and they need to restart logging and cleanup as they go .and I am still hunting,I will only stop when the forest is burned up by lack of knowledge.

  19. Regarding ‘aggressive initial attack’, are you familiar with the Tamarack Fire?

    It cost almost nine million dollars of taxpayer money to finally contain the 68,637 acre fire three months after Forest Service personnel made the “tactical management decision not to insert fire crews” when the fire was a quarter of an acre.

    And I’m sure the people of Markleeville would disagree with your thoughts of what a ‘natural state of our forests’ looks like, especially after their town experienced mudslides coming out of the burn just two weeks ago.

  20. Forest Service has lots of soil transects and lots of data as well as peer reviewed science on soils and fuels treatment. Google Scholar Busse et al.

  21. Okay, so let’s talk about the tamarack fire. At one of the busiest times of the year when resources are starting to get spread then and there’s already multiple high priority fires going on they had a single tree on the top of a mountain surrounded by rocks. That’s pretty low priority and they knew that and instead of risking people’s lives to get on top of a mountain and drop a tree they decided to monitor it. This is done pretty frequently. Yes it is very unfortunate that it grew but you have a choice of potentially endangering firefighters and taking them away from already active fires.

    As for the mudslides you’re talking about that is the fault of high-severity fire taking place that have experienced 100 years of fire suppression and very minimal/proper fuels management. If you want to go back to suppressing wildfires you will continue to get more of that. If you want to go back to traditional logging practices AKA high grading. Then you’re going to get forests that are filled with smaller denser trees with more ladder fuels that will create high-severity fire.

    Also, uneducated elected officials are not a good source of information for future reference.

  22. So at the end of the day in order to show progress on a fuels treatment that takes multiple years they have to be able to show the acreage completed so a 100 acre project in the end with our current system is going to show 400-500 acres completed. In a perfect world they could show that they have a 5 year project and be able to say they finished this phase of the project but it’s not a perfect world and it’s not a perfect process.

    The politicians expect exact numbers and progress on projects when it comes down to the money and they only allocate funds on a yearly basis. Not a pot of money for “x” number of years.

    Another issue is they have fuels crews hired to do this work over the course of the summer months in most areas and they get pulled away from their project work to help suppress wild fires and the fuels projects aren’t getting done. The agency could get way more done if they hired year round crews that help fight fire in the core fire season and did project work when they aren’t on fire as well as in the shoulder seasons. They should also hire enough people to staff their engines and crews/modules to meet minimum standards at the least year round who could also be helping with the project work when not on fires and in the shoulder seasons.

    It would be interesting to see how much work could get done if they actually bolstered the year round boots on the ground instead of hiring more overhead positions that sit at a computer until a fire is big enough to order a team.

  23. I’m sure it took more man-hours to monitor the fire for 13 days than it would have taken to put a quarter acre smoke out on day one. Then there’s the fact that the quarter acre smoke was NOT in a hazardous place, it was in a small basin with a lake. No one would have been at risk putting that fire out. The pilot and USFS -oligist ‘monitoring’ the fire were probably at greater risk than a few guys with piss pumps and McCloeds would have been.

    And no, I don’t want to go back to the day of ‘high-grade’ logging. That day is long past. I want to go to the day of sound forest management which logging, when done right, is a huge part of.
    After all, this isn’t 1910, it’s 2022, and we, loggers included, know how to do it right and have the equipment and will to do it. Not to mention, loggers only do what’s in the harvest plan, which is written in cooperation with the property owner. And IMHO, the U.S. Forest Service is a lousy steward of its (our) land. It has been for going on 50 years.

  24. fire dog said:
    “… if they hired year round crews that help fight fire in the core fire season and did project work when they aren’t on fire …”
    Oregon has a nifty program called Fire & Ice in which two agencies — forestry and transportation — share full-time year-round staff. They fight fire in the summer and do road maintenance in the winter.

  25. You can only count wildfire acres if its in an area covered by NEPA and the wildfire met objectives

  26. Investigation ? It’s called FACTS reporting. If you do multiple treatments you report each of them. There is spatial data tied to each treatment so it’s very clearly reported as multiple treatments on the same area

  27. Thomas, not sure where your comment about uneducated politicians comes from but the reason they get involved is because States and local citizens have become vocal about the shortcomings and mismanagement of the forests by the US Forest Service. Bad decisions such as what happened on the Tamarack Fire as well as bungled fuel reduction prescribed burns that have taken people’s homes and ruined their recreational opportunities in their local forests have them upset and they are speaking out.

    It is clear by the article that these fuel reduction projects are not only expensive and the cost accounting system is poor, but the labor intensity and relatively small acreages accomplished compared to the total acreage of the western forest shows that it will not have a significant impact on reducing large fires. The West has a bark beetle problem and this practice will only exasperate the problem.

    Fire suppression has not been effective enough in the past to be blamed for fuel build up and it’s pretty obvious that you are not familiar with today’s logging and forestry practices. I stand by my original post of saying we need a shift to aggressive initial attack on most fires and getting back to real forest management that includes logging under the direction of professional foresters. Climate change and population spread into rural areas will demand it. Ironically the Federal government wants us all to buy electric cars to reduce our carbon footprint while the US Forest Service is failing at fire suppression and promoting forest management by fire.

  28. Sara, you no doubt are versed in FS reporting system. Perhaps if there was an added category of “acres fully treated to ecologically provide reduced wildfire hazard” then it would not only provide that unique metric. but also demonstrate how many years of repeated treatments was necessary to accomplish such.

  29. Sarah,

    Everyone knows FACTS is garbage and, just because it is reported in a garbage database, does not make it ethical, moral or legal. I have personally witnessed numerous dubious and borderline fraudulent FACTS inputs throughout the years. You cannot just make a database and claim “all is good” because you entered data in that database.

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