From the Executive Summary... 'Purpose: National forests of the dry, interior portion of the western United States that are managed by the Department of Agriculture*s Forest Service have undergone significant changes over the last century and a half, becoming much denser, with fewer Large trees and many more small, tightly spaced trees and underbrush. These changes have raised concerns about the current health of these forests and their continued ability to provide for sustained levels of uses, including timber and wildlife habitat, by future generations of Americans, as required by law. In response to a request from the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, House Committee on Resources, GAO examined issues related to the health of these forests. In this report, GAO discusses (1) the extent and seriousness of forest-health-related problems on national forests of the interior West, (2) the status of efforts by the Forest Service to address the most serious of these problems, and (3) barriers to successfully addressing these problems and options for overcoming them... Efforts to address catastrophic wildfires face several barriers, including the fact that most methods of reducing fuels can be difficult to reconcile with agencies* other responsibilities. For instance, many agency officials told GAO they do not believe it is possible to set controlled fires to reduce fuels on a scale replicating that of natural fires and still meet air quality standards under the Clean Air Act. The Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency are involved in a 3-year experiment to better determine whether and how it will be possible to reconcile controlled burning and these air quality standards. Moreover, because of climatic conditions and the density of tree stands, the danger of fire*s escaping from such controlled burning is often too high in many areas for this method to be used. Mechanically removing fuels (through commercial timber harvesting and other means) can also have adverse effects on wildlife habitat and water quality in many areas. Officials told GAO that, because of these effects, a large-scale expansion of commercial timber harvesting alone for removing materials would not be feasible... The Forest Service has not yet devised a cohesive strategy to address these barriers to reducing excessive national forest fuel levels and associated catastrophic wildfires. It has not done so, in large part, because it lacks basic data on, for example, the (1) locations and levels of existing excessive fuel accumulations, (2) effects on other resources of different methods of reducing fuels, and (3) relative cost-effectiveness of these different methods, all of which are needed to identify quantitative measures and goals for fuels reducing fuels. Nor has the Forest Service identified a firm schedule for completing activities that will provide it with such data. The lack of such performance measures and goals, and of a cohesive strategy and schedule for developing and accomplishing them, makes it difficult for the agency to be held accountable for achieving its statutorily mandated mission of sustaining multiple uses... Agency Comments: The Forest Service reviewed a draft of this report and generally agreed with GAO*S findings, conclusions, and recommendation. In its comments, the agency stated that the report is very comprehensive, does a good job of covering the problem, and effectively portrays the conditions found on many national forest throughout the interior West. The agency agrees that it has not advanced a cohesive strategy to treat all 39 million acres of national forestlands at risk of catastrophic fire but says that it is committed to developing one in a timely manner and (1) has a general strategy for reducing wildfire threats, (2) is currently developing a more specific planning process and tools for completing this strategy, (3) will make significant progress in eliminating these threats, and (4) has realistic time frames for accomplishing these tasks. The agency also listed in its comments several initiatives that it has under way or planned to complete its more cohesive strategy. According to the agency, these initiatives will be important in reducing threats from catastrophic wildfires. This report recognizes that the Forest Service has a general strategy and has undertaken and is planning several initiatives to develop a more cohesive strategy. however, GAO believes that the general strategy lacks cohesiveness because it does not address several barriers that the Forest Service faces in undertaking its planned fuel reduction activities. Nor is it clear from the Forest Service*s comments how its current and planned initiatives, individually and collectively, will provide this cohesiveness. GAO also believes that the agency needs to be accountable for accomplishing the strategy. For these reasons, GAO believes that the agency s more cohesive strategy should include, as specific steps, those actions in its current and planned initiatives that it believes will enable it to address these barriers, as well as a schedule for completing them. GAO believes that this delineation of specific actions and a schedule will provide a practical framework and process for accomplishing the agency*s intentions. The agency also provided a number of technical and clarifying comments. GAO revised the draft report where appropriate in response to the agency*s comments. The agency*s comments and GAO*S responses to them are found in appendix I of this report.'