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The Forest Service: A Story of Change
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
University of Wisconsin Colloquium
Stevens Point, WI—November 17, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be here today. This is one of the premier institutions in the nation for training professionals in natural resource management. That includes—I hope—a lot of our own future Forest Service employees. I’d like to thank Dr. Dombeck for inviting me. As you probably know, I served under Dr. Dombeck when he was Chief of the Forest Service in the late 1990s, when I was regional forester for the Northern Region in Missoula, Montana.

What I’d like to do today is tell you a little bit about the Forest Service. I think it’s particularly fitting because we’re currently celebrating some anniversaries with a great deal of relevance for the Forest Service:

  • This year is the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As you might know, we manage a lot of the land that Lewis and Clark saw and wrote about two centuries ago.
  • This is also the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964. We started managing national forest land as wilderness in 1924. Today, we manage some 35 million acres of wilderness. That’s almost two-thirds of all the wilderness in the lower 48 states. It’s also about a fifth of all the land we manage, which is about 192 million acres, an area more than four times the size of Wisconsin.
  • Finally, next year is the Forest Service centennial. We’ve been holding centennial forums this month to prepare for a Centennial Congress in January. The Congress will celebrate a hundred years of Forest Service work and help us prepare for the next hundred years.

Forest Service Mission
I think our centennial is an occasion for reflecting on where the Forest Service has been, where we are today, and where we’re heading in the future. Federal agencies like the Forest Service are generally guided by a mission with a basis in law. You sometimes hear people complain that the Forest Service doesn’t have a clear purpose anymore—that our mission isn’t clearly enough defined by Congress, and that therefore we’re in deep trouble.

Here’s our mission statement: “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” To me, that seems clear enough. But somebody else might see “health, diversity, and productivity” a little differently than I do. And different people are going to have different needs that will sometimes come into conflict. That was pointed out a hundred years ago by the first Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, and it’s just as true today.

But does that ambiguity doom our enterprise? For a hundred years, the answer was no, so why should it suddenly be yes? In fact, I would argue just the opposite—that the ambiguity inherent in our mission has given us the flexibility we need to adjust to changing times. Unless we can adjust to change, we can’t sustain the changing landscapes we care for, nor can we meet the changing needs of the people we serve.

I think our history bears that out, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. I’ll focus on the National Forest System, although I think it also applies to our State and Private Forestry and Research programs. How have the challenges we face as land managers changed over time, and how have we risen to those challenges? After looking at parts of our past, I’ll look forward to some of the challenges I think we’ll face in the future.

I say “parts of our past” because I’m a forester by profession, 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 any historians here today will bear with me.

A century ago, our nation faced a crisis caused by the unrestrained exploitation of our natural resources. Bison, elk, 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, the forest reserves were created, later called national forests. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt charged the Forest Service with managing them. Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief, spelled out their purpose in the first Use Book: “Forest reserves,” he wrote, “are for the purpose of preserving a perpetual supply of timber for home industries, preventing the destruction of the forest cover which regulates the flow of streams, and protecting local residents from unfair competition in the use of forest and range.”

The mission of protecting timber supplies and watersheds comes from the Organic Act of 1897. Protecting local residents from unfair competition was Pinchot’s interpretation of our mission, and it implies social responsibility. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

The first Use Books explicitly promoted several uses—timber, water, range, minerals, game, and even recreation. We went in and put those uses for the first time under careful management. For example, overgrazing had been a severe 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. People now wanted more from their government than ever before. The social role that Pinchot had anticipated for our agency now became a broad public expectation. And because he’d already planted the seed, we were able to quickly respond.

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 I guess you could say 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 so on. 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 what we can learn from our past. 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.

The major concerns are, in particular, the Four Threats we’ve been talking about:

  • First, fire and fuels. As you 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. As you know, beetle-killed stands pose huge fire hazards in many parts of the West and South.
  • Second is the spread of invasive species. 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 is the loss of open space. Every day, America loses more than 4,000 acres of working farms 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 also losing forest cover in many areas, even in parts of the East, despite gains we’ve made as agricultural land has reverted to forest. We’re losing valuable corridors that wildlife needs and rangeland that many plants and animals need to survive. We’re also losing a piece of our cultural heritage as Americans.
  • Fourth is unmanaged outdoor recreation. In many places, recreational use is outstripping our management capacity and damaging resources, particularly the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles. This is a legitimate use of public lands, but we do need to manage it better.

These threats aren’t particularly new. We’ve been dealing with them for some time, and there are lots of other things we do as well. But if you go out on our ranger districts, I think you’ll find overall that we spend a lot more time and resources on these four threats than on most other things, and certainly more than on timber harvest or grazing issues or roadbuilding, although you’d never know it sometimes from the papers. I believe that in the years to come, the Four Threats will drive a lot of the changes we’ll see.

There are also some other concerns. 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. Besides the Four Threats, our review teams noted several concerns:

  • First, we’ve got a huge backlog of work to complete. 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.
  • Second, we’ve got oversubscribed water resources and deteriorating watersheds in many parts of the country. As our population rises, the problem is only going to get worse. As a nation, I’m not sure we’re thinking this problem through enough or doing enough about it.
  • Third, the levels of ozone and other substances we’re seeing in the atmosphere threaten long-term ecosystem health. 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.

Again, these are not new problems, and we’ve been addressing them for some time. But what struck our review teams was the sheer scale of what we face. When you take these concerns and combine them with the Four Threats, you get some idea of the 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
That brings me back to our mission and purpose. 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, our first Forest Service Chief, 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 and goals. 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.

Another thing we’ve got to do better has to do with our own organization. Our society is rapidly evolving. Our average age is changing, our average complexion is changing, and our attitudes toward gender are changing. We are far more urban today than we were a century ago, and in a few decades, the majority of Americans will come from what today we call ethnic minorities. Our organization has got to keep up. We need to promote diversity within our organization to reflect the way that we as a society are evolving.

Sustainability Is Key
In closing, the Forest Service has come a long way over the last hundred years. Values have changed and so have the challenges we face. If there’s one message I’d like to leave you with, it’s this: The Forest Service is not all one thing for all time. We have changed over time, and we will continue to change. Unless we do, we will not be able to meet the challenges ahead or the changing needs of the people we serve.

That doesn’t mean blowing with the wind; we remain committed to a land ethic. But it does mean that sustainable forestry isn’t a single narrow prescription—so many trees of such-and-such a size in such-and-such an area. Ecosystems are more dynamic and resilient than that, so our focus has to be on long-term outcomes, not short-term prescriptions.

Within certain limits, sustainability can be a range of options with tradeoffs. The option you choose depends on your values and long-term goals, which are social and economic as well as ecological. And the way you choose, if you truly want your choice to be sustainable, is through community-based forestry—by working upfront through collaborative partnerships for long-term ecosystem health.

For that, we’re going to need help. Community-based forestry is relatively new for us, and we’re still working it out. I sincerely hope that some of you will one day help us find some solutions, either by making the Forest Service your career or by working together with us through our partner organizations.

Thank you.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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