Falling under the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service manages nearly 200 million acres of land. Spread over 154 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and eight national monuments, a wide variety of natural resources are managed for use by present and future generations. Additionally, 442 wilderness areas are protected by the U.S. Forest Service.
The first Division of Forestry was created in 1881 following a massive 650-page report on American forest health. It wasn’t until the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 that the president had the ability to create “forest reserves” from public lands. President Harrison took advantage of this ability first, initiating the Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve. This original piece of forestry currently lies in the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton National Forests of Wyoming.
Ranchers of all types strongly opposed the creation of national forests. They feared that the grazing practices they’d been using for years would be curtailed, and, at least in the early years, this was true. Grazing was banned by the Secretary of the Interior for roughly the first decade. Limited grazing was eventually allowed to return, and horses ranged freely. By 1906, grazing fees instituted for the first time created public outcry. Westerners, in particular, became incensed. In what came to be known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion” in the 1970s, the demand for grazing land to be transferred from federal to state control increased. While this never came to pass, the controversy still simmers in ranching communities today.
The need for grasslands protection came about as a result of the Great Dust Bowl and a desire to reduce soil erosion. Emergency relief acts in 1933 and 1935 sought to limit erosion and provide more forage for grazing animals in regions particularly hard hit by the continuing drought. Tracts of land purchased by the government (known as Land Utilization projects) were used to show farmers soil conservation methods. Eventually the Secretary of Agriculture took over these properties for more involved conservation.
By 1960, nearly 4 million acres designated as national grasslands fell under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service as part of the National Forest System.
The National Forest System grew fairly rapidly in the early years, tripling in size between 1905 and 1910. Acting as the First Chief of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot established the idea of conservation for “wise use” of natural resources. He was also a founding member of the Society of American Foresters, an organization active in forest science today. Pinchot felt strongly that the Forest Service had an obligation to provide training and education for private and state land holders that would encourage healthy forest development. This type of cooperation continues today. Also during Pinchot’s tenure, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company defaulted on the terms of its land grant for building the Oregon and California (O&C) Railroad. As a result, 2.4 million acres returned to the federal government for management by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), adding to Forest Service acreage.
Under the management of Henry Graves, who followed Pinchot as Chief of Forestry, management for wildfire prevention became a top priority for the Forest Service. The cooperative practice of Forest Service fire teams assisting on lands outside the forest system began with the Weeks Act of 1911. This act allowed Fire Service firefighters to help immediately in case of fire, where previously the fire had to cross onto National Forest property. Money provided to bolster state fire programs bolstered the ability to fight local fires. Civilian Conservation Corps programs built fire lookouts across the country, and surplus materials from World War II, including air tankers and jeeps, were used in the increasingly mechanized fight against wildfires. The costs and resources dedicated to firefighting have only risen in the ensuing years. The Forest Service now predicts that two-thirds of its budget will go to firefighting in less than a decade. They also predict that catastrophic blazes will become the norm, burning twice the typical acreage by 2050. With a $4.9 billion budget requested for 2017, forest restoration and landscape management programs still fall short on funds to adequately implement their full agenda. Increased intensity and frequency of fire in the coming years will continue to challenge these efforts.
As the National Forest Service grew, so too did the National Park Service. An interservice rivalry arose in the form of competition for funds and for land. To compete with the National Park Service emphasis on recreation, outdoor recreation became important for the Forest Service as well. The Columbia River Gorge hosts the very first Forest Service campground, built in 1915 at Eagle Creek, as part of the Mount Hood National Forest. Eagle Creek was the first campground in the nation to have flush toilets, which was no small feat at the time.
More than a century later the National Forest Service provides recreational opportunities across the country including dispersed camping, mountain biking, backpacking, off-roading, shooting, river rafting, and more. With a mandate to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forest and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations,” the Forest Service balances grazing and timber harvesting with recreational demands and the protection of endangered species. An underappreciated aspect of this mandate includes water management, distribution, and restoration: National Forests provide 3,400 communities with water, including some of the largest cities in the West. Additionally, the Forest Service also acts as the world’s largest forestry research organization. As Gifford Pinchot stated, the mission of the Forest Service is “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”
Many Forest Service lands are free to access, though modest use fees apply in some areas. An America the Beautiful Pass can be purchased from most federal recreation sites for $80 and is good for national parks, national wildife refuges, national forests and grasslands, and Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands. Discounted passes are available for fourth graders, senior citizens, active duty military, and people with disabilities.
We all want to visit and enjoy these beautiful spaces that offer reprieve from the day-to-day grind. We have a duty to do so responsibly. By following the Leave No Trace ethic and making memories not tracks, we can ensure that these gorgeous environments will be available for future generations.
Consult these articles for additional information on U.S. public lands: