House bill to improve accountability for wildfire prevention work advances to floor

A House committee has unanimously approved a bill to improve how the Forest Service keeps track of wildfire prevention work, citing NBC News reporting that shows the government has long overstated how much of the country’s federal forests it has protected from catastrophic fires.

The bill, the Accurately Counting Risk Elimination Solutions (ACRES) Act, will advance from the Natural Resources Committee to the floor for debate and vote.

An NBC News investigation in August found the Forest Service overstates how much land it treats to reduce wildfire risk, even though oversight agencies warned it not to do so for two decades.

The bill’s author, Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., the chairman of the committee’s federal lands subcommittee, cited the NBC News reporting in his summary, saying the amount of land treated to reduce wildfire risk annually — one of the key strategies for combating the wildfire crisis — is “already insufficient.” 

“Recent investigative reporting uncovered the situation is likely much worse, as agencies like the [Forest Service] have been overstating their treatment numbers by over 20 percent,” he wrote in the bill mark-up memo. “The investigative reporting found the [Forest Service] counted treatments on the same pieces of land toward its risk reduction goals multiple times.”

NBC News analyzed 15 years of Forest Service “hazardous fuel” treatment data to reach those estimates, and experts said the inflated annual totals deprived members of Congress who make funding decisions of knowing the true scope of the wildfire challenge.

The investigation also found that for 20 years, leading federal oversight agencies repeatedly criticized how the Forest Service calculates its progress in eliminating the trees and brush that fuel dangerous fires, calling its annual reporting of acres treated to reduce risk “misleading” and “inaccurate” and recommending changes.

The House bill would require the Forest Service and the Interior Department, the other major federal land management agency, to produce yearly detailed reports about work to reduce hazardous fuels, including the actual number of acres the agencies treated over the past year, as well as additional details about treatment location, type, effectiveness and cost. It would also require both agencies to standardize their tracking procedures to ensure accuracy.

The chairman and ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., included a similar provision that would require acres that have been treated to be counted only once in a bill they proposed last fall. Both have also questioned Forest Service leadership about NBC News’ findings, including at a budget hearing last week.

Their bill died in the last session of Congress but may be reintroduced this session.

“I think I can speak for all of us that Congress would like to make its funding decisions based on more accurate information, not less accurate,” Manchin told Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, who was testifying to the committee.

The agency has publicly supported the House bill, with a request for some technical changes, and Moore told representatives at a Natural Resources Committee hearing Wednesday, “Perhaps it may be time to look at a different way of reporting.” 

“We want to be transparent to Congress,” he said. “And there’s a question on the table that basically says you’re double-counting and triple-counting some of the same acres treated — and that’s not our intent.”

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