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The Forest Service: A Story of Change
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins
Centennial Forum
Philadelphia, PA—November 14, 2004

Welcome! It’s a pleasure to be here today with so many of our partners and collaborators. The Forest Service has always been about more than any of our parts—more than the National Forest System, more than the research and development we do, more than our State and Private Forestry programs, and more than our international programs. The Forest Service has even been about more than our own employees. In my view, the Forest Service has always been about partnerships—about getting together with our collaborators and figuring out how we can work together to reach our common goals.

“Open spaces to crowded places: Landscape change along the I-95 corridor” is the topic for this forum, and I think it’s a critical one. This part of the country has the highest proportion of urban land in the United States; eight of our ten most urbanized states are in the Northeast, and a fifth of our population lives in the high-density area from Maine to Virginia. Urban sprawl, city trees, and green spaces all deeply affect quality of life in these areas, and you’ll hear more about that later today. I’d like to thank Kathy Maloney, Michael Rains, and everyone at the Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry and the Northeastern Research Station for arranging this event.

Long and Broad View
I’ve had a chance to look over the agenda. You’ll be covering a lot of ground in this forum, all of which will be great preparation for the delegates going to the Centennial Congress in January.
The Congress will not be about the issues we deal with every day, like what to do about rising recreational pressures on public lands near urban areas. These are indeed critical issues, but they don’t rise to the level we envision for this Congress. We expect the Congress to take the long and the broad view—the view across decades and even centuries.

Today, I’d like to set the tone by looking back at parts of our past as an agency—at some of the road we’ve traveled—to see what we can learn from our journey. Then I’d like to look forward to some of the challenges I think we’ll face in the future.

I say “parts of our past” because I’m not a historian. Historians have their own ideas of the eras we’ve gone through in the story of conservation, and their ideas might be more complete and accurate than mine. But I don’t think that matters, because I think our stories come out the same in the end. So I hope the historians among you will bear with me.

I said at the outset that the Forest Service has always been about partnerships, and I’ll come back to that at the end of my remarks. We’ve always been about working with partners to deliver the goods, services, and values that Americans want from their forests and grasslands. But these things have changed over time, and in response our focus has shifted. Let me just talk about that in terms of the National Forest System, although it applies to our State and Private Forestry and Research programs as well.

A century ago, our nation faced a crisis caused by the unrestrained exploitation of our natural resources. Elk, passenger pigeon, and other wildlife species were going extinct, and we were seeing disastrous fires and floods. There were also widespread fears of a timber famine.

Conservation came out of that crisis because people wanted to stop the waste. They wanted to conserve timber for future generations. They wanted to conserve water and stop the floods and disastrous fires. They wanted to save America’s wildlife from extinction.

In response, President Theodore Roosevelt created the National Forest System and charged the Forest Service with managing it. The multiple uses mentioned in the first Use Books governing national forest management included timber, range, minerals, water, wildlife, and recreation. We went in and put these uses for the first time under careful management. For example, overgrazing had been a problem, and we got that under control. We also protected the game and started to get the fires under control. It was a period sometimes known as custodial management.

Social Responsibility
Then came the Great Depression, and we were faced with a whole new set of values and challenges. We’d always envisioned a social role for the national forests—to help homesteaders and small landowners get access to the natural resources they needed. But during the Depression, people came to want more from their government than ever before.

In response, we delivered social programs and jobs, especially through the Civilian Conservation Corps. Every national forest had at least one CCC camp, and we gave jobs to thousands of unemployed Americans in all those CCC camps. The CCC built a lot of our infrastructure—roads, trails, campgrounds, ranger stations, and so on. The CCC planted trees and helped us control many more fires. It was a period of new social responsibility for the Forest Service.

World War II ended the CCC, but our social responsibility continued through the war effort, which we strongly supported. A lot of our employees enlisted, and we ramped up timber supplies needed by our troops.

Timber Focus
After World War II, we entered a new period. Our troops came home, and the demand for housing soared. The war effort had depleted state and private timber stocks, and the national forests were needed to fill the gap. From the 1960s through the 1980s, every administration, with strong congressional support, called for more timber from the national forests. In those 30 years, we went from producing very little timber to meeting 20 to 25 percent of our nation’s sawtimber needs. We helped millions of Americans fulfill the American dream of home ownership.

I don’t want to oversimplify. The 1940s and 1950s were a difficult period of transition. Some of the folks who’d grown up under the old custodial model of the Forest Service found it hard to adjust to the new timber model. Some actively opposed it.

And timber wasn’t all we did from the 1960s to the 1980s, not by any means. Outdoor recreation was growing by leaps and bounds, and popular demand for more of a balance between timber and the other uses led to the Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act of 1960. We also had the Wilderness Act of 1964. These developments show that public values were changing. The first Earth Day in 1970 sent another major signal. And if there were any lingering doubts, the environmental legislation of the 1970s put them to rest—the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Forest Management Act, and all the rest. We learned that the public wanted more of a say in our management, and they wanted us to focus more on delivering values and services like wildlife, water, wilderness, and recreation.

Restoration and Recreation
In response, we started moving toward a new ecosystem-based model of land management. The 1990s were a transitional period, where we no longer focused primarily on timber production. Again, the transition was difficult. Some of the folks who grew up under the old timber model weren’t too thrilled.

But in my view, it was the right and the necessary thing to do. It was necessary because both our landscapes and our social needs are constantly changing. If we don’t adjust to those changes, then we can’t fulfill our mission of caring for the land and serving people.

That brings me back to the question I raised at the outset of my remarks: What can we learn from our journey over the past hundred years? No matter how you tell the story, I think it comes out the same in the end. It’s a story of changing values—of changes on the land and changes in the people we serve. It’s also a story of how we responded to those changes to protect the land and deliver the goods, services, and values that people want.

Today, I believe we are in a new period—a period of ecological restoration and outdoor recreation. Maybe more than ever before, we focus on delivering values and services like clean air and water, scenic beauty, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. These are the main things people today want from their public lands. We know that from our surveys and from talking to our partners and to people in our communities.

And, yes, we also deliver opportunities to harvest timber, graze livestock, and extract minerals. With goods like these come important values, like jobs and community stability. We know that Americans want these values, too.

To deliver all these goods, services, and values, we’ve got to manage the land for long-term ecosystem health while meaningfully engaging the public in our decisionmaking. We believe that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away.

Scale of What We Face
The period we are in will some day end, just as every period did before it. What will the future bring? I believe that a few key strategic concerns will drive future change, at least for the next decade or so and possibly beyond. These concerns have nothing to do with timber harvest or livestock grazing or roadbuilding. Those debates are essentially over—or they should be. They have become huge distractions from the major concerns we face today.

For the past 2 to 3 years, we’ve been conducting Chief’s Reviews. These are strategic reviews of the Forest Service at the regional level, and we’ve found some common themes. One common theme is the sheer scale of what we face. Our review teams have noted seven aspects in particular:

  • First, we’ve got enormous threats from fire, fuels, insects, and disease. As you probably know, we’re seeing fire effects in some places that are way outside the historical range of variability. We’re also seeing beetle epidemics in a number of places that are unprecedented in modern history.
  • Second, we’ve got a huge threat from the spread of invasive species, especially here in the East. Chestnut blight, hemlock woolly adelgid, Norway maple, Asian longhorned beetle, emerald ash borer, zebra mussel, northern snakehead—you know the list. Transportation corridors like I-95 only facilitate the spread. All invasives combined cost Americans about $138 billion per year in total economic damages and associated control costs. The ecological costs are even worse. One study has found that invasives have contributed to the decline of almost half of all imperiled species.
  • Third, one of the biggest threats we face is loss of open space. Again, the East is particularly hard hit; threats to forested watersheds in this region are huge, as a project we’re sponsoring called “Forests on the Edge” is starting to show. But it’s also a national threat. Every day, America loses more than 4,000 acres of working farms, forests, and ranches to development. That’s more than 3 acres per minute, and the rate of conversion is getting faster all the time. We’re losing corridors that wildlife needs and rangeland that many of our native plants and animals need to survive. We’re also losing a piece of our national heritage as working farms, forests, and ranches are converted to urban uses.
  • Fourth, recreational use is outstripping our management capacity and damaging resources, particularly the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles. Again, this is a big problem here in the East, on private as well as public land. I could show you slide after slide—tire tracks running through wetlands; riparian areas churned into mud; banks collapsed and bleeding into streams; ruts in trails so deep you can literally fall in; and, particularly out West, sensitive meadows turned into dustbowls.
  • Fifth, we’ve got a huge backlog of work to complete on national forest land. We’ve got thousands of deteriorating culverts to replace. We’ve got roads to restore, abandoned mines to reclaim, watersheds to repair, vegetation to treat, and all kinds of deferred maintenance and ecological restoration to catch up on. These problems are only made worse by altered vegetation conditions, the loss of milling capacity for removing vegetation, and public distrust of active forest management.
  • Sixth, we’ve got oversubscribed water resources and damaged watersheds in many places, including here in the East. The dense populations along the I-95 corridor use enormous amounts of water and generate huge quantities of waste. Still, we tend to think we have so much water in this part of the country that we can be careless about waste and watershed protection. As a result, water quality declines and stream health suffers, as do fisheries and other resources. As our population continues to rise, not only here but all across the country, these problems are only going to grow. As a nation, I’m not sure we’re thinking this threat through enough or doing enough about it.
  • Seventh, rising levels of ozone and other substances in the atmosphere threaten long-term ecosystem health. Again, you don’t have to look far to see the threat here in the East. On summer days in the city, all you have to do is step outside—or maybe you’d better not. This is a huge national issue. Our ability as a nation to furnish clean air and water, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and other environmental services from forested landscapes and other natural areas is increasingly open to question.

Any one of these threats alone would be huge. When you put them all together, you get some idea of the sheer scale of what we face. I believe that the Forest Service is at a crucial moment in history. In the past century, there’ve been only a few similar moments where we’ve faced challenges on a similar scale. Meeting these challenges will lay out a career’s worth of work for the next generation of Forest Service employees.

Some of these challenges might already be affecting the values that people want from public lands. Recall how the environmental legislation of the 1970s responded to changes in public values. Last December, Congress passed the first major legislation affecting national forest management in a generation, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. The legislation responds to the threat from fire and fuels. Does it signal the beginnings of a change in public values? I’m not sure, but maybe so.

Community-Based Forestry
So our story is a story of change, and our mission focus has changed accordingly over the years. Just to recap:

  • A hundred years ago, we focused mainly on timber, water, and general forest protection.
  • Seventy years ago, we incorporated more social responsibility into our mission through the CCC.
  • Forty years ago, we focused heavily on timber, but we also sought to balance that use with other uses, particularly recreation, range, watershed, and wildlife and fish.
  • Today, we focus on sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of forests and grasslands to meet present and future needs. Given the scale of what we face, I think our main focus has to be on ecological restoration and outdoor recreation.

In a general sense, our mission has always been caring for the land and serving people. But what that specifically means has changed over time. I think our history makes that clear.

Something else has changed, too: the way we deliver what people want. A hundred years ago, Gifford Pinchot recognized the need for working in partnership with local communities if we were to succeed. He planted the seeds of partnership in our first Use Book by directing our employees to work closely with local communities to promote conservation.

Ever since then, we’ve always been committed to fulfilling our mission through partnerships. Today, the scale of what we face leaves us no other choice: We have got to work together. But the way we work with people has changed over time. In particular, we’ve learned the need for more upfront public involvement in our decisionmaking.

Today, I believe that we need a community-based collaborative approach, sometimes called community-based forestry. It involves getting everyone interested to state their ideas upfront and then getting them to talk through their differences and come to some agreement based on shared values.

That can be really difficult. Sometimes, people believe we aren’t giving them enough of a say in our decisions. Sometimes, they see things in terms of good and evil and want to have it all their own way. In a lot of places, we’ve got a ways to go before we get the kind of full upfront collaboration with our partners we want. We’ve got to do better.

Improving Collaboration
In closing, we’ve come a long way together over the last hundred years. Values have changed and so have the challenges we face. In the period we’re in now, where our focus is on ecological restoration and outdoor recreation, the sheer scale of what we face is overwhelming. I believe that the only way we can rise to the challenge is through community-based forestry—by working upfront through collaborative partnerships for long-term ecosystem health.

For that, we’re going to need help from our partners. Community-based forestry is relatively new for us, and we’re still working it out. I believe that these Centennial Forums and the upcoming Centennial Congress are suitable forums for this issue. As I said at the outset of my remarks, we expect the Congress to take the long and the broad view—the view across decades and centuries.

The question of collaboration takes the long and the broad view. It transcends the specific challenges we face. It rises to the strategic level we envision for these events. I urge you to carefully consider it. With your help, we can improve the way we work together to meet the challenges of the future—and to prepare ourselves for the changes to come.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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