NATION

The $1.6 billion National Fire Plan, approved by Congress last September, promised a cooperative, interagency approach to fire management (HCN, 9/25/00: Fires bring on a flood of federal funds). But the government's in-house watchdog says that promise is far from fulfilled.

In his testimony before a House subcommittee on July 31, General Accounting Office assistant director Barry Hill said that fire managers have tended to stick with their own agencies. Many "have been reluctant to forge the ... new working relationships" necessary for thinning and prescribed burning projects near cities and towns.

The inertia, said Hill, has caused duplication and disorganization. Since the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have not been able to agree on criteria for identifying communities at risk from wildfire, the agencies have compiled separate and conflicting lists.

The agencies are also using different standards for fire-management projects, different ways of measuring their firefighting capabilities, and different accounting methods for fire-plan money. This "narrowly focused, stovepipe approach," said Hill, "will mean that funds appropriated for wildland fire management may not be used in an effective and timely manner."

"There are examples after examples of how the agencies are cooperating with each other," says Lyle Laverty, the Forest Service's fire-plan coordinator. He points to a 10-year fire-management strategy, later adopted by secretaries of Interior and Agriculture Gale Norton and Ann Veneman at the Western Governors' Association meeting in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on Aug. 13.

The strategy is "a sea change in terms of how the agencies and states are working together," says Laverty. "That got lost in the noise."

But Greg Aplet of The Wilderness Society, who helped develop the new strategy, says the final version is much weaker than earlier drafts because the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture had seen the original plan "as a threat." The current strategy makes only a general commitment to future cooperation, and delays developing a more specific strategy until next May.

The National Fire Plan is intended to fund thinning and prescribed burning on 3.2 million acres of federal lands in its first year. To date, the agencies have thinned or burned about 860,000 acres, with about 25 percent of the acreage near cities and towns. Most of these projects were approved before Congress passed the National Fire Plan.