Previous Wildland Fire Management Initiatives
National Fire Plan
Though wildland fires play an integral role in many forest and rangeland ecosystems, decades of efforts directed at extinguishing every fire that burned on public lands have disrupted the natural fire regimes that once existed. Moreover, as more and more communities develop and grow in areas that are adjacent to fire-prone lands in what is known as the wildland/urban interface, wildland fires pose increasing threats to people and their property.
The National Fire Plan (NFP) was developed in August 2000, following a landmark wildland fire season, with the intent of actively responding to severe wildland fires and their impacts to communities while ensuring sufficient firefighting capacity for the future. The NFP addresses five key points: Firefighting, Rehabilitation, Hazardous Fuels Reduction, Community Assistance, and Accountability.
The National Fire Plan continues to provide invaluable technical, financial, and resource guidance and support for wildland fire management across the United States. Together, the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are working to successfully implement the key points outlined in the National Fire Plan by taking the following steps.
An ongoing priority of the National Fire Plan is ensuring that the agencies of the Departments of Agriculture and Interior maintain a world-class firefighting organization. The Departments will continue to provide all necessary resources to ensure that the fire suppression workforce is at the highest efficiency possible in order to protect life and property in as safe a manner as possible. During the life of the National Fire Plan, major efforts to address the shrinking firefighting workforce have been undertaken, including hiring of additional permanent and seasonal firefighters and permanent fire management staff.
Enhanced training and leadership development opportunities for firefighters and fire managers continue to be delivered through the Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program, the Fire Use Training Academy, and the Prescribed Fire Training Academy. Through these academies, more than 500 people have been trained yearly since the inception of the National Fire Plan.
In the aftermath of catastrophic wildland fires, emergency stabilization and post-fire rehabilitation work improves lands that are unlikely to recover naturally from the effects of wildfires. Emergency stabilization treatments are essential to protecting lives and properties downstream of burned areas. This work, often implemented over the course of several years following a wildfire, includes reforestation, road and trail rehabilitation, fence replacement, fish and wildlife habitat restoration, invasive plant treatments, and replanting and reseeding with native or other desirable vegetation.
In response to the risks posed by heavy fuels loads -- the result of decades of fire suppression activities, sustained drought, and increasing insect, disease, and invasive plant infestations -- the National Fire Plan established an intensive, long-term hazardous fuels reduction program. Hazardous fuels reduction treatments are designed to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildland fire to people, communities, and natural resources while restoring forest and rangeland ecosystems to closely match their historical structure, function, diversity, and dynamics. Such treatments accomplish these goals by removing or modifying wildland fuels to reduce the potential for severe wildland fire behavior, lessen the post-fire damage, and limit the spread or proliferation of invasive species and diseases. Treatments are accomplished using prescribed fire, mechanical thinning, herbicides, grazing, or combinations of these and other methods. Treatments are being increasingly focused on the expanding wildland/urban interface areas.
The Healthy Forests Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act have equipped land managers with additional tools to achieve long-term objectives in reducing hazardous fuels and restoring fire-adapted ecosystems.
Oversight, coordination, program development, integration, and monitoring are critical to successful implementation of the National Fire Plan. Well-articulated, consistent policies and procedures provide for better oversight and review, and lead to greater accountability. To this end, the Wildland Fire Leadership Council is committed to ensuring the highest level of accountability.
Healthy Forests Initiative
The Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI) was launched in August 2002 by President Bush with the intent to reduce the risks severe wildfires pose to people, communities, and the environment. By protecting forests, woodlands, shrublands, and grasslands from unnaturally intensive and destructive fires, HFI helps improve the condition of our public lands, increases firefighter safety, and conserves landscape attributes valued by society.
Why is the Healthy Forests Initiative Needed?
In recent years, most of us have seen televised pictures of wildland fires, evacuated communities, burned homes, and blackened forests, or witnessed these fires first hand. In 2002, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and New Mexico, each had their largest timber fire in a century. The most devastating series of wildland fires in state history swept Southern California during October 2003. These fires killed 24 people, destroyed more than 3,700 homes, and burned 750,000 acres. Alaska set a record for acres burned in 2004. And, while fire has always helped shape our landscape, today's fires are not those of the past; they are often hotter, more destructive, and more dangerous to fight.
We know in part the reason for the difference. Compared with earlier times, many of today's forests often have unprecedented levels of flammable materials including among other materials: underbrush, needles, and leaves. In the interior West for example, Ponderosa pine forests range from Arizona and New Mexico northward into Idaho. A century ago such a forest may have had some 25 mature trees per acre and be easily traversed on horseback or by a horse-drawn wagon. Today that same forest may have more than 1,000 trees on the same acre creating conditions that are much too thick for the passage of a hiker. These tightly packed trees are smaller, weaker, more disease prone, and more susceptible to insect attack than their ancestors. Such forests form huge reservoirs of fuel awaiting ignition, and pose a particularly significant threat when drought is also a factor.
Just as we know the reason for current devastating fires, we also know the solution. Wildfire requires three elements: heat, oxygen, and fuel. We can manage neither heat nor oxygen, but we can remove hazardous fuels and make them unavailable for fire's inevitable appearance. HFI helps make that happen by reducing unneeded paperwork and processes thus shortening the time between when a hazardous fuels project is identified and when it is actually implemented on the ground.
HFI accomplishes its goals through administrative reforms and legislative action.
HFI Administrative Reforms
Three areas where changes have had a positive impact are: 1) Streamlined compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, 2) Amended rules for project appeals, and 3) Improved Endangered Species Act consultation to expedite decisions.
Compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act
Two key actions streamlined compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For a given project, a federal land manager can comply with the National Environmental Policy Act in one of three ways. Complex projects or those likely to have significant impacts on the human environment require the preparation of an environmental impact statement. An action, where preliminary analysis shows there were similar projects done in the past that did not have significant impact, can be categorically excluded from further examination for National Environmental Policy Act purposes. When a manager is unsure of likely impacts, preparation of an environmental assessment that will result in a finding that either an environmental impact statement is needed or the project will not have a significant impact.
In passing the National Environmental Policy Act, Congress envisioned environmental assessments would be short, concise documents. Over the years, however, environmental assessments often ballooned to 100 page tomes taking many months to prepare.
Congress gave the National Environmental Policy Act, oversight to the Council on Environmental Quality which it placed in the Executive Office of the President. Thus, it was Council on Environmental Quality Chairman, James Connaughton, whom President Bush directed to develop new National Environmental Policy Act guidance for fuels treatment projects.
The Chairman issued guidance in December 2002 requiring fuels environmental assessments be concise documents between 10 and 15 pages in length, thus returning them to what Congress had originally envisioned. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildfire Service, Forest Service, and National Park Service now use the streamlined environmental assessments for fuels projects.
The President also directed the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to improve regulatory processes. After analyzing over 2,500 hazardous fuels and post-fire rehabilitation projects, the departments developed Categorical Exclusions for certain kinds of fuels treatments and rehabilitation actions meeting conditions tied to project size; location; treatment method; and compliance with existing land and resource management plans and other environmental laws. Fuels projects must be identified via collaborative processes involving state, local, and Tribal partners.
By the end of the 2005 fiscal year, these reforms will have sped fuels treatments to nearly 800,000 acres of public land.
Amended Rules for Project Appeals
The Forest Service has improved administrative appeal rules encourage early and more meaningful public participation. Read more in the Federal Register Notice June 4, 2003.
The Bureau of Land Management has added regulations allowing the agency to make wildfire management decisions effective immediately when the Bureau of Land Management determines that vegetation, soil, or other resources on public lands are at substantial risk of wildfire due to drought, fuels buildup, or other reasons, or when public lands are at immediate risk of erosion or other damage due to wildfire. The Office of Hearings and Appeals issued regulations to expedite administrative review of such decisions. Read More in the Federal Register Notice December 16, 2002.
Improved Endangered Species Act Consultation to Expedite Decisions
Under the Endangered Species Act, each Federal agency must, in consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service ( Services) , ensure that any action it funds, authorizes, or carries out will not jeopardize the continued existence of listed species, or adversely modify their designated critical habitat. These are known as section 7 (after the section of the Endangered Species Act that requires them) consultations.
The Services developed new guidance to assist in the section 7 consultation analysis for hazardous fuels treatment projects. After training and certification, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management personnel can make determinations without consulting with, or obtaining written concurrence from, the Services for proposed actions that support the National Fire Plan and the President's Healthy Forest Initiative in cases that are “not likely to adversely affect” the environment. The counterpart regulations were published in the Federal Register on December 8, 2003. Read More about the Federal Register Notice: "Joint Counterpart Endangered Species Act Section 7 Consultation Regulations" (PDF, 82 KB).
In addition, the Services declared that, with regard to endangered species, evaluations of fuels treatments should balance long term benefits, including the benefits of restoring natural fire regimes and native vegetation, as well as the reduction of long term risks of catastrophic wild fire, against any short or long term adverse effects. Read More about "Evaluating the Net Benefit of Hazardous Fuels Treatment Projects" (PDF, 708 KB). Moreover, the Services moved to create efficiencies in ESA consultations by adding flexibility to consultations as described in "Alternate Approaches for Streamlining Section 7 Consultation on Hazardous Fuels Treatments Projects" (PDF, 380KB).
President Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-148) (PDF, 108 KB) in December 2003. HFRA, as it is known, contains a variety of provisions to speed up hazardous-fuel reduction and forest-restoration projects on specific types of Federal land that are at risk of wildland fire and/or of insect and disease epidemics. The HFRA helps States, Tribes, rural communities and landowners restore healthy forest and rangeland conditions on State, Tribal, and private lands.
HFRA passed Congress with large bi-partisan majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In it, Congress affirmed the need to reduce the risk of wildland fire to communities, municipal water supplies, forests, rangelands, and other important landscape components.
On lands meeting specific criteria, it provides streamlined approaches to satisfy NEPA requirements for collaboratively selected fuels treatment projects. The provisions of HFRA can be applied to as many as 20,000,000 acres of land managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
With direct respect to removing hazardous fuels, HFRA:
- Provides authority for expedited vegetation treatments on certain types of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands that: (a) are at risk of wildland fire, (b) have experienced windthrow, blowdown, or ice-storm damage, (c) are currently experiencing disease or insect epidemics, or (d) are at imminent risk of such epidemics because of conditions on adjacent land.
- Provides expedited environmental analysis of HFRA projects.
- Provides administrative review before decisions are issued on proposed HFRA projects on Forest Service lands
- Contains requirements governing the maintenance and restoration of old-growth forest stands when the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management carry out HFRA projects in such stands.
- Requires HFRA projects on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land to maximize retention of larger trees in areas other than old-growth stands, consistent with the objective of restoring fire-resilient stands and protecting ‘at-risk' communities and Federal lands
- Requires collaboration between Federal agencies and local communities, particularly when Community Wildfire Protection Plans are prepared
- Requires using at least 50 percent of the dollars allocated to HFRA projects to protect areas adjacent to communities at risk of wildland fire
- Requires performance to be monitored when agencies conduct hazardous fuel reduction projects and encourages multiparty monitoring that includes communities and other diverse stakeholders (including interested citizens and Tribes)
- Encourages courts to expedite judicial review of legal challenges to HFRA projects
- Directs that when courts consider a request for an injunction on an HFRA-authorized project, they balance the short and long-term environmental effects of undertaking the project against the effects of taking no action
In addition HFRA:
- Encourages biomass removal from public and private lands
- Provides technical, educational, and financial assistance to improve water quality and address watershed issues on non-Federal lands.
- Authorizes large-scale silvicultural research
- Authorizes the acquisition of Healthy Forest Reserves on private land to promote recovery of threatened and endangered species, and improve biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
- Directs the establishment of monitoring and early warning systems for insect or disease outbreaks
Congress enacted legislation expanding the stewardship contracting authority to allow Federal agencies to enter into long-term (up to 10 years) contracts with small businesses, communities and nonprofit organizations to reduce wildfire risk and improved forest health. These contracts permit the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to trade goods for services; that is, it allows private organizations or businesses to remove forest products, such as trees and undergrowth, in return for performing work to restore and maintain healthy forest ecosystems.
- Stewardship Contracting
- Stewardship Contracting with The Nature Conservancy for a Ecosystem Restoration and Community Protection Project: Bayou Ranger District of the Ozark - St. Francis National Forest
- Landscape Scale Research Addresses Southern Pine Beetle: Southern Research Station and Ozark-St. Francis National Forests
- Landscape Scale Research Addresses Red Oak Borer in Upland Oak-Hickory Forests: Southern Research Station and Ozark-St. Francis National Forests
- Cooperative Agreement between the National Association of Conservation Districts and Federal Agencies Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior
- Progress Report on Implementing President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003
- Progress Report on Implementing President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 in the South
- Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003: Summary of Implementation Actions
- May 30, 2003 - Healthy Forests Initiative Fact Sheet (all agencies) (PDF, 110 KB)