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FOREST SERVICE. The U.S. Forest Service is the largest agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It manages public lands in national forests and grasslands, and provides technical and financial assistance to state and private forestry agencies.


The history of the Forest Service dates back to the passage of a general appropriations bill in Congress on 15 August 1876, that authorized the commissioner of agriculture to appoint a forestry agent to study and report on forest supplies and conditions in the United States. Franklin B. Hough, a physician, historian, and statistician with a great passion for forestry and who had been working tirelessly for the passage of the bill, was appointed as the first forestry agent. He presented his Report upon Forestry in slightly more than a year's time to the commissioner of agriculture, as directed by the enabling legislation. His report discussed relevant land laws, planting and transplanting trees, soil types, use of wood by railroads and iron manufactures, problems of insects and fire, meteorology and effects of forests on climate, and the forestry resources in the United States and overseas. He also pointed out the destructive practices occurring on private lands and the need for publicly owned land for reforestation. Although federal forestlands were not set aside until fifteen years after passage of the appropriations bill, a Division of Forestry was established in 1881 and Hough was named chief. Hough was succeeded by Nathaniel Egleston in 1883 and by Bernhard E. Fernow, a professional forester from Germany, in 1886. On June 30, 1886, Congress gave full statutory recognition to the Division of Forestry. Fernow continued as the chief until Gifford Pinchot, America's first native professionally trained forester, succeeded him in 1898.

The appointment of the energetic Pinchot marked the beginning of a new era in federal policy. The changes that took place during his tenure have shaped the administration and jurisdiction of federal forestry ever since. Congress advanced the Division of Forestry to bureau status three years later, which strengthened the agency's position in the Department of Agriculture. Then, in 1905, 63 million acres of federal forestland were transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture. In recognition of the dramatic increase in the bureau's responsibility, it was renamed the Forest Service in July 1905 and Pinchot became the first chief.

Pinchot and his close friend President Theodore Roosevelt provided national leadership to the forest conservation movement in the United States. They oriented the Forest Service to focus on the wise use of forests so as to provide the greatest good for the greatest number over the long run. Although the initial mandate for the Forest Service was to provide quality water and timber for the nation's benefit, the expectations of goods and services from national forests and grasslands have changed over the years. The modern Forest Service manages national forests for multiple uses and benefits and for the sustained yield of renewable resources such as water, forage, wildlife, wood, and recreation. The multiple use and sustained yield principles stress the need to balance the uses that are made of the major resources and benefits of the forests—timber, water supplies, recreation, livestock forage, wildlife and fish, and minerals—in the best public interest while ensuring the productivity of the land and protecting the quality of the environment.

The National Forest System

The public lands managed by the Forest Service are collectively called the National Forest System. It is defined as federally owned units of forest, range, and related land consisting of national forests, purchase units, national grasslands, land utilization project areas, experimental forest areas, experimental range areas, designated experimental areas, other land areas, water areas, and interests in lands that are administered by the Forest Service or designated for administration through the Forest Service.

The National Forest System grew significantly from its modest beginning in 1891 when President Benjamin Harrison signed the Forest Reserve Act following two decades of congressional debates over the nation's forests. In 1897, President William McKinley signed the Forest Management Act, or the Organic Act, which determined the purposes of the national forests—predictable supplies of water and timber. And, it was not until 1960 that Congress expanded the definition of national forest purposes with the Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act. A significant degree of prescription was added sixteen years later with the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which reorganized, expanded, and amended the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974. The National Forest Management Act requires the Secretary of Agriculture to assess forestlands, develop a management program based on multiple-use, sustained-yield principles, and implement a resource management plan for each unit of the National Forest System. It is the primary statute governing the administration of national forests. Ecosystem management, an ecological approach to forest management to assure productive, healthy ecosystems by integrating the ecological, economic, and social needs and values, has become the cornerstone of national forest management in recent years.

The National Forest System encompasses 155 national forests and 20 grasslands located among 44 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, comprising 191 million acres (77.3 million hectares) of land, or 8.5 percent of the total land area in the United States. The natural resources on these lands are some of the nation's greatest assets and have major socioeconomic and environmental significance. Each national forest is managed by a forest supervisor and consists of several ranger districts. Overall, the Forest Service employs approximately 30,000 people who reflect the full range of diversity of the American population.

Forest Service Lands

Approximately 73 percent of the 191 million acres owned by the Forest Service is considered forested. Of that forested land, 35 percent is available for regularly scheduled timber harvesting and about half a percentage of those trees are harvested in any given year. The remaining 65 percent of the forested land is designated for nontimber uses, such as wilderness and other areas set aside for recreation, or cannot be harvested due to environmental conditions, such as steep slopes and fragile soils. Timber harvesting has remained the most controversial of all Forest Service activities in the last three decades. Clear-cutting, a regeneration method that harvests all trees, has become a symbol of the public's displeasure with national forest management. A Forest Service estimate in the early twenty-first century showed that harvesting from national forests was down to nearly 4 billion board feet of timber in 2000 (less than 5 percent of the domestic timber production), compared to 12 billion board feet per year in the 1960s and 1970s.

With more and more people living in urban areas, national forests have become more valuable for ecotourism or nature-based recreational activities. Under the Land and Water Fund Conservation Act of 1965, the agency has been able to acquire land specifically for public out-door recreation in national forests. In 1996, the national forests received 341 million visitor days of recreational use, including activities such as hiking, fishing, camping, hunting, horseback riding, offroad vehicle use, and driving for pleasure. The announcement of the protection of 58.5 million acres of roadless areas in national forests—one of the most sweeping conservation measures in American history—by President Bill Clinton in 2001 and a subsequent bill, "The National Forest Roadless Area Conservation Act of 2002," are intended to set aside undeveloped areas of the national forests for nontimber amenity values, including recreation.

The Forest Service motto, "Caring for the Land and Serving People," summarizes the spirit of its mission, which is accomplished through five main activities: (1) protection and management of natural resources on National Forest System lands; (2) research on all aspects of forestry rangeland management, and forest resource utilization; (3) community assistance and cooperation with state and local governments, forest industries, and private landowners to help protect and manage nonfederal forest and associated range and watershed lands to improve conditions in rural areas; (4) achieving and supporting an effective workforce that reflects the full range of diversity of the American people; and (5) international assistance in formulating policy and coordinating United States support for the protection and sound management of the world's forest resources.

Challenges and Changes

In its existence, the Forest Service has been faced with a plethora of problems encompassing economic, ecological, and social concerns. Some of the most serious problems throughout the history of the Forest Service have been fires, overgrazing by cattle and sheep, soil disturbance and stream pollution caused by these forces and by mining, insect and disease epidemics of forest trees, and public opposition to timber harvesting. Following devastating fires in Idaho and Montana in 1910, the Forest Service began to set its fire policy. A new national policy was established by Congress through passage of the Weeks Law in 1911 that enabled federal purchase of forestlands damaged by farming, reckless logging, and repeated fires. Most of the national forestland in the East has been acquired under this law, which also set up a program for cooperation between the Forest Service and the states in fire protection. The General Exchange Act of 1922 allowed federal land to be exchanged for parcels of privately owned land within the boundaries of national forests. The Clarke-McNary Act of 1924 expanded the Weeks Law by allowing for the purchase of lands needed for the production of timber and by providing for agreements with the states to protect state-owned and private forestlands against fire, with the latter paying at least half the costs. Since the early days, the Forest Service has been developing ways to forecast fire behavior, inform citizens about fire prevention, extinguish the flames, and provide federal aid to state and private landowners for fire protection. The history of Smokey Bear is synonymous with the fire prevention education programs developed by the Forest Service. Since 1944, Smokey Bear has remained the forest fire and, later, wildfire prevention campaign symbol of the agency.

In addition to fire protection assistance, the Clarke-McNary Act, for the first time, offered substantial assistance to small farm and woodlot owners for planting tree seedlings. It also gave a strong impetus to the establishment of state forestry agencies. Although the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 permitted large-scale federal-state cooperation in agricultural extension work, including private forestry, it was not until the Clarke-McNary Act that private forestry received considerable attention. Further boost for private forestry was provided by the Cooperative Forest Management Act of 1950, which authorized the secretary of agriculture to cooperate with state foresters in assisting private landowners. The Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978 guided the federal-state cooperative forestry activities for many years. The National Forest-Dependent Rural Communities Economic Diversification Act of 1990 considerably enhanced the Forest Service's formal authority to work with rural communities in proximity to national forests. In 1999, Congress modified the 1990 act to include communities in proximity to national grasslands as well. Cooperative forestry provides technical and financial assistance to help rural and urban citizens, including private landowners, care for forests and sustain their communities. Several economic action programs (such as Rural Community Assistance Program, Forests Products Conservation and Recycling, and Market Development and Expansion), landowner assistance programs (such as Forest Legacy Program, Forest Stewardship Program, Stewardship Incentive Program), and urban and community forestry programs are in place.

Reforestation of national forests gained momentum in the 1930s under the Knutson-Vandenberg Act of 1930. The Forest Service operated more than 1,300 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in national forests during the 1930s. More than 2 million unemployed young men in the CCC program performed a vast amount of forest protection, watershed restoration, erosion control, and other improvement work, including the planting of 2.25 billion tree seedlings. Another program begun around the same time was the shelterbelt tree-planting program in the Great Plains during the dust bowl. The Pest Control Act of 1947 provided for federal-state action to detect and suppress severe outbreaks of forest insects and diseases. The Multiple-Use Mining Law of 1955 curbed mining abuses and interference with management of the national forests.

Policies for wildlife management in the Forest Service have evolved over time. Aldo Leopold laid the foundation for wildlife management while working for the agency in the Southwest Region, from 1909 to 1924. The 1964 Wilderness Act verified many years of Forest Service reservations of such lands. Under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, the Forest Service has expanded its protection of rare wildlife, and under the Environmental Quality Act of 1969, it has taken special steps to minimize undesirable impacts of forest uses on land, water, wildlife, recreation, and aesthetics. The northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest and the red cockaded woodpecker in the South are examples of endangered species that have changed the face of forestry practices in these regions.

As the world's largest research agency, the Forest Service provides the scientific and technical knowledge necessary to protect and sustain the nation's natural resources on all lands. The biggest breakthrough for forestry research was the McSweeney-McNary Act of 1928, which authorized a broad permanent program of research and the first comprehensive nationwide survey of forest resources on all public and private lands. The first experiment station was established near Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1908, for the study of range conditions; and others followed throughout the West, and later in the East and South, for range and forest studies. The world-famous Forest Products Laboratory was established in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1910. In 1908, Congress provided for states in which national forests are located to receive 25 percent of the receipts from sale of timber, grazing permits, and other special fees; such funds are to be used for schools and roads in counties containing national forestland.

Overall, the Forest Service manages the National Forest System to provide a variety of harmonious uses and to produce continuous yields of timber and other renewable resources without reducing their productive capacity and with careful regard for aesthetic, recreational, and environmental values. Each national forest and grassland is governed by a management plan prepared according to the National Forest Management Act. The Forest Service implements or revises these plans following an environmental assessment (Environmental Impact Statements or Environmental Analysis) or Categorical Exclusion in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (as amended).

The headquarters of the Forest Service is in Washington, D.C., with a chief overseeing the entire Forest Service operation. The chief is a federal employee who reports to the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The chief's staff provides broad policy and direction for the agency, works with the President's administration to develop a budget to submit to Congress, provides information to Congress on accomplishments, and monitors activities of the agency. The nine regional headquarters are in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Lakewood (Colorado), Albuquerque, Missoula (Montana), Ogden (Utah), San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and Juneau (Alaska). The regional office staff coordinates activities between national forests, monitors activities on national forests to ensure quality operations, provides guidance for forest plans, and allocates budgets to the forests. Research projects are coordinated by six experiment station headquarters: Saint Paul, Newton Square (Pennsylvania), Portland (Oregon), Berkeley, Fort Collins (Colorado), and Asheville (North Carolina). Wood product research is centralized at the Forest Products Laboratory. There is an Institute of Tropical Forestry in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and an Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry in Honolulu.


Clary, D. A. Timber and the Forest Service. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.

National Forest Timber Harvest. Forest Management Staff, USDA. Forest Service, 1998. Available at

Robbins, W. G. American Forestry: A History of National, State, and Private Cooperation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Southern Forest Resource Assessment. Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, 2002.

Steen, Harold K. 1976. The U.S. Forest Service: A History. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

———. The Beginning of the National Forest System. USDA Forest Service FS-488, 1991.


See alsoAgriculture, Department of ; Conservation ; Environmental Movement ; Federal Agencies ; Lumber Industry ; Wildfires .

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Forest Service

The national forest system in the United States must be considered one of the great success stories of the conservation movement. This remains true despite the continual controversies that seem to accompany administration of national forest lands by the United States Forest Service.

The roots of the Forest Service began with the appointment in 1876 of Franklin B. Hough as a "forestry agent" in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to gather information about the nation's forests. Ten years later, Bernhard E. Fernow was appointed chief of a fledgling Division of Forestry. Part way through Fernow's tenure, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which authorized the president to withdraw lands from the public domain to establish federal forest reserves. The public lands were to be administered, however, by the General Land Office in the U.S. Department of the Interior .

Gifford Pinchot succeeded Fernow in 1899 and was Chief Forester when President Theodore Roosevelt approved the transfer of 63 million acres (25 million ha) of forest reserves into the Department of Agriculture in 1905. That same year, the name of the Bureau of Forestry was changed to the United States Forest Service. Two years later, the reserves were redesignated national forests.

The Forest Service today is organized into four administrative levels: the office of the Chief Forester in Washington, D.C.; nine regional offices; 155 national forests; and 637 ranger districts. The Forest Service also administers twenty national grasslands .In addition, a research function is served by a forest products laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, and eight other field research stations.

These lands are used for a wide variety of purposes and given official statutory status with the passage of the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960. That act officially listed five uses--timber, water, range, wildlife , and recreation--to be administered on national forest lands. Wilderness was later included. Forest Service now administers more than 34 million acres (14 million ha) in 387 units of the wilderness preservation system.

Despite a professionally trained staff and a sustained spirit of public service, Forest Service administration and management of national forest lands has been controversial from the beginning. The agency has experienced repeated attempts to transfer it to the Department of the Interior (or once to a new Department of Natural Resources); its authority to regulate grazing and timber use, including attempts to transfer national forest lands into private hands, has been frequently challenged and some of the Service's management policies have been the center of conflict. These policies have included clear-cutting and "subsidized" logging , various recreation uses, preservation of the northern spotted owl , and the cutting of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Clary, D. A. Timber and the Forest Service. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.

O'Toole, R. Reforming the Forest Service. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1988.

Steen, H. K. The United States Forest Service: A History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.

. The Origins of the National Forests. Durham, NC: Forest History Society, 1992.


Forest Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Sidney R. Yates Federal Building 201 14th Street, SW at Independence Ave., SW, Washington, D.C. USA 20250 Email: [email protected], <>

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National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act (1966)

Richard Finkmoore

United States wildlife refuges are one of several systems of federally owned land, including the national forests and the national parks. The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act (1966, P.L. 89-669, 80 Stat. 927) establishes the mission of the refuge system, provides guidance to the U.S. secretary of the interior on refuge management, requires refuge planning, and gives refuge managers directions for making decisions about proper uses of the refuges. As of January 1, 2003, the refuge system comprised more than 95 million acres in 538 refuges and over 3,000 small waterfowl breeding and nesting areas. National wildlife refuges are located in all fifty states and several U.S. possessions. Because almost all refuge lands are owned by the federal government, constitutional authority for the Refuge Administration Act is found in the property clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article IV, section 3). This clause provides that Congress has the power to make "all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States...."


America's first refuge was created in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt set aside Pelican Island in Florida to protect herons and egrets from overhunting. During the next several decades, other presidents and Congress established scores of refuges, many as "inviolate sanctuaries" where wildlife could not be hunted or otherwise disturbed. Refuges were established for a variety of purposes, in some instances to protect a single species, in others to protect particular groups of animals, and sometimes for very general purposes. Many refuges were created to conserve migratory waterfowl, and in the mid-1900s a significant number of refuges were opened to hunting. Because refuges were established without any overall strategy, but rather as needs and opportunities presented themselves, the refuges became a diverse and rather haphazard collection of lands.

The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act was enacted to create a system from this loose network of refuges. The act consolidated the refuges under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service. The act also permitted any uses of refuge lands that were "compatible" with the purposes of individual refuges.


Under the 1966 statute, many refuges suffered from numerous uses that were harmful to wildlife, such as farming, livestock grazing, recreational activities, and in many instances even oil and gas production and military training exercises. Environmentalists and others urged that the refuges be given greater protection from such abuses and that conservation of the nation's wildlife be declared the first priority of the refuge system. At the same time, some hunting groups sought greater access to more refuges.

Congress responded in 1997 by passing the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, which made significant amendments to the 1966 act. Section 4 of the 1997 act sets forth for the first time one mission for all refuges: "to administer a national network of lands for the conservation, management, and ... restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of future generations." The act also establishes a hierarchy of uses allowed on refuges. The dominant use is wildlife conservation, and priority public uses are recreational activities, including hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, and environmental education. Uses that are "compatible" with wildlife conservation are still permitted on refuges, but the act specifies standards and procedures intended to prevent uses that are harmful to wildlife. Finally, the 1997 legislation requires the secretary of the interior to prepare comprehensive conservation plans for all refuges through a process that ensures public participation.

See also: Federal Land Policy and Management Act; National Forest Management Act.


Bean, Michael J., and Melanie J. Rowland. The Evolution of National Wildlife Law, 3d ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1997.

Reed, Nathaniel, and Dennis Drabelle. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "America's National Wildlife Refuge System." <>.

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