The U.S. Forest Service for years has over-counted areas that it treated to reduce the risk of wildfire, according to an analysis by NBC News.
Over the past 20 years, leading federal oversight agencies have repeatedly criticized how the Forest Service calculates its progress in eliminating the trees and brush that fuel dangerous fires. Those agencies have labeled the Forest Service’s annual reporting of acres treated to reduce risk as “misleading” and “inaccurate,” and recommending changes.
Yet the measure has remained the service’s main metric, contributing to a system that experts say has long incentivized not the most effective and important risk reduction work, but the cheapest.
A study by NBC News found that, throughout the country, the Forest Service has 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.
The agency has reported that it reduced “hazardous fuel” on roughly 40 million acres of land in the past 15 years, but that figure may be overstated by an estimated 21 percent nationally, according to the NBC News analysis of public Forest Service records. In California, it is overstated by approximately 30 percent.
The inflated figures provided by the Forest Service to Congress deprive those making funding decisions of knowing the true scope of the challenge, experts say.
“As we make large investments like the infrastructure bill, how many acres does that actually get us in terms of wildfire hazard reduction?” asked Matt Hurteau, a forest and fire ecology professor at the University of New Mexico. “If we’re double or triple counting a treatment on a particular acre, then we’re giving the impression that a lot more area is being treated than actually is.” That creates confusion for the public and decision makers, said Hurteau, along with other experts and agency employees.
The Forest Service contends that the number of treated acres it reports to Congress annually is a measure of the “total amount of work” performed, and that it has other metrics to address how much land is being protected.
“Total acres is a measure that is commonly understood and accepted,” said Forest Service spokesman Wade Muehlhof. “Our current reporting metrics provide a high level of transparency on how fuels work is completed during the annual funding cycle.”
Facing wildfires growing in frequency and intensity across the West, Congress recently approved over $3.5 billion for risk reduction work, with more expected soon.
However, legislators and oversight agencies have been pushing the Forest Service since the early 2000s to shift its focus to tracking progress in ways that better reflect how risk is reduced. The agency has been promising to do so for nearly as long, introducing several different “outcome” measures over the years.
“For years, pretty much everyone in the system has been saying this [main] measurement is not good enough, and we think we can do better,” said Courtney Schultz, a professor of forest and natural resource policy at Colorado State University who has conducted research with the agency on fire risk reduction. But the shift away from it has yet to happen. With all the new investment from Congress, she said, “now is the time to do that.”
This year, the Forest Service laid out new plans to focus on outcomes and ramp up treatments four-fold in the West, reducing risk on 20 million acres in the next decade. But 20 million acres treated and 20 million acres of land protected are two very different measures.
“The goal, while described in acres on National Forest System lands, is about reducing risks to communities. It’s not as black and white as fully treated vs. risk reduction,” Muehlhof said. “When we talk numbers at the large scales we work, it will always be difficult to communicate and understand. We fully admit that we must continually do better in communicating how we’re reporting information.”
Forest Service efforts over the past few decades to focus on reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire have been mired in political fights, funding fluctuations, lawsuits and red tape.
Forests evolved to endure, and benefit from, occasional wildfires, which occur naturally as part of an ancient cycle. People disrupted that cycle by suppressing fire in the Western U.S. for roughly a century. Now, wildfires that once would have crawled across small areas increasingly turn into huge, deadly blazes. To prevent those massive fires, the Forest Service reduces their potential fuel — thinning trees, removing debris and lighting planned fires.
The Forest Service estimates that 63 million acres of its land are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire — an area the size of Oregon that accounts for a third of all national forest acreage, most of it in the parched West. In its most recent plan, released in January, the agency set a goal to reduce wildfire fuel on 20 million acres of its high-risk land by 2032.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently directed the Forest Service to take bold actions to restore forests, improve resilience, and address the climate crisis.
Vilsack’s action comes, in part, in response to President Biden’s Executive Order on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies, which tasks the Department of Agriculture with a series of actions to pursue science-based, sustainable forest and land management. This includes intensifying work to reduce wildfire risk, accelerate reforestation, restore ecosystems, support forest products jobs and markets in rural communities, and define and inventory old-growth and mature forests on federally managed lands.