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Investing in the Future: Ecological Restoration and the U.S. Forest Service 1
Dale Bosworth and Hutch Brown
(Dale Bosworth is a Chief Emeritus of the U.S. Forest Service, Missoula, MT; Hutch Brown is a policy analyst for the Forest Service, Washington, DC.)

Abstract. The focus of the Forest Service has changed in recent decades from short-term outputs of goods and services to long-term outcomes on the land. Much of the work being done on ranger districts is designed to restore the functions, composition, and structure of healthy, well-adapted ecosystems. This paper argues that the American people want and need a full array of services from healthy, functioning ecosystems, including clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Through ecological restoration, the Forest Service can invest in the natural capital needed to ensure that forests and grasslands across the landscape, on both public and private land, can continue to deliver a full array of ecosystem services.

Has the Forest Service lost its way? Some people seem to think so. Some have claimed that the Forest Service betrayed its conservation origins by focusing on timber production in the postwar period (Hirt 2002; Langston 1995). Others have suggested just the opposite—that the Forest Service lost a clear vision for the future when it stopped focusing on timber production (Nelson 2000; Sedjo 2000). To listen to critics on both sides, one might think that the Forest Service is limping along toward its inevitable demise (Fairfax 2005; O’Toole 1997)—or all but dead, a mere shell of its former self (Friedman 2006).

Mission Focus

To paraphrase Mark Twain, however, rumors of the Forest Service’s demise are greatly exaggerated (Sample 2000). Hand-wringing over the Forest Service’s mission seems to be largely limited to those who write for a living—and who are disturbed by the Forest Service’s shift in focus from commercial resource extraction to ecological restoration (Fitzsimmons 1999). In our experience with the Forest Service, we have never found loss of focus or lack of purpose to be a serious problem on the ground. To the contrary, those doing the actual work of caring for the land and serving people always seemed to know what they were doing and why, whether it was protecting forests, removing timber, or restoring watersheds and wildlife habitat.

In fact, the very lack of a mission statement explicitly grounded in law has been a boon for the Forest Service. It has given the agency the flexibility needed to shift focus in response to new public demands, scientific insights, and realities on the ground. From the time of Gifford Pinchot, whose dictum “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time” was deliberately vague, the Forest Service has pursued a pragmatic course in national forest management, adjusting policies to fit changing perceptions of “the greatest good.” Pinchot’s pragmatic vision for the agency was perfectly consistent with the prewar custodial focus, the postwar timber focus, and the current focus on ecological restoration and outdoor recreation.

The current focus responds, in part, to a postwar shift in what the public wants and expects from the national forests and grasslands. For example, a national survey in 2000 found that clean water, wilderness, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation have eclipsed commercial resource extraction in terms of what the public expects from national forest management (Shields and others 2002). To deliver such values and services, the Forest Service has focused since the early 1990s on restoring healthy, functioning ecosystems, particularly in view of growing threats associated with fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation (Bosworth 2003). In recent years, for example, five Western States have had their biggest fires in modern history, with devastating results for ecosystems and human communities alike.2 Uncharacteristically severe wildfires are one of the greatest threats to conservation facing our nation. They alone dictate a strong national focus for the Forest Service on restoring fire-adapted ecosystems.

Restoration Challenges

What is ecological restoration? A report by the Forest Service’s Restoration Framework Team (2006) offers important insights. Restoration includes putting large woody debris back into salmon streams in Oregon to reverse channelization; liming trout streams in Virginia to neutralize acidification caused by chemical deposition from the atmosphere; using fire to eradicate invasive weeds from rangelands in Wyoming; repairing damage by off-highway vehicles to upland meadows in Colorado; converting old farmland in Illinois into something resembling the original tallgrass prairie; and returning degraded pine woodlands in Arizona and oak savannas in Indiana to a semblance of their presettlement condition (fig. 1).

These are just a few examples—there are many more. A common thread is a vision of forests and rangelands as complex webs of ecological interactions in constant flux, to be managed for maximum health and resiliency. Today, restoration means more than just helping plants regrow. Restoration practitioners take a hard look at ecological functions and ecosystem components across landscapes and try to reverse ecological damage, degradation, and destruction, thereby restoring flourishing, resilient ecosystems.

A good example is in the Greater Yellowstone Area, where the Forest Service is working with partners across jurisdictions to restore habitat for threatened grizzly bear. Grizzly depends for food on seeds from high-elevation whitebark pine, which in turn depends on increasingly scarce fires to keep out competing trees (particularly subalpine fir) and to open spaces for birds ( Clark’s nutcracker) to cache seeds—the main way whitebark pine propagates. Whitebark pine is also threatened by an exotic disease (white pine blister rust) and a native forest pest (mountain pine beetle) that has now reached higher elevations due to warmer temperatures caused by climate change. The sheer ecological complexity of the recovery challenge, coupled with the interconnectedness of the threats—fire exclusion, invasive species, and climate change—dictates a strong landscape-scale restoration focus through interagency and interdisciplinary partnerships.

The ecological complexities—and threats—associated with high-elevation grizzly habitat are not obvious. Their discovery resulted from painstaking Forest Service research across a variety of disciplines, including forestry, wildlife biology, entomology, fire ecology, and plant pathology. Restoration depends on careful research to furnish a sound scientific basis for understanding how ecosystems function, how they have been degraded, and how they might be restored.

Restoration Limits

Research is also needed to help stake out the limits of ecological restoration. Restoration means returning a degraded ecosystem to a semblance of the conditions that might exist had no ecological damage, degradation, or destruction occurred—such as good foraging conditions for grizzly in whitebark pine. However, the degree to which even a semblance of former conditions can be restored often has social, economic, or ecological limits. Restoration can be on a scale ranging from partial to full (ERI 2005); for example, a partially restored ponderosa pine woodland might not have the full parklike effects of the original ecosystem, but it will still support more native wildlife than before and it won’t carry a crown fire into local communities.

Some types of restoration might not be feasible or affordable at all. For example, many exotic plants are so pervasive and well-established on the Caribbean National Forest in Puerto Rico that they have become integral parts of forested landscapes. Similarly, water diversions for agricultural uses going back a century or more have reshaped many western landscapes. Most water rights are held by a web of State and Federal authorities; as a result, eliminating water diversions and restoring waterflows might not always be politically feasible or socially sustainable.

Climate change can be another limiting factor. Where climate change alters the historical trajectory of an ecosystem—for example, by extending the range of a forest pest or by triggering a forest type conversion—the immediate challenge becomes promoting ecosystem health and resilience under the altered climatic conditions. In the longer term, the primary challenge for forest managers is to help restore a global balance between carbon sinks and carbon emissions by preventing deforestation or increasing carbon sequestration (Bosworth and others 2007).

Moreover, restoration is by no means the only thing that the Forest Service does. The agency still delivers a full range of goods, values, and services to the American people, including wood, water, livestock forage, habitat for wildlife and fish, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. For example, the Forest Service might decide in some places to extract timber to help furnish local jobs and supply Americans with wood, even where a timber sale has no restoration value whatsoever.

Restoration Roots

However, where restoration is feasible, affordable, and appropriate, it dovetails with Forest Service traditions and goals going back to the agency’s earliest days. In 1905, when the Forest Service was founded, the main use of national forest land was for livestock grazing. On national forests in the West—and later on the national grasslands of the Great Plains—managers limited livestock grazing to the carrying capacity of the land, allowing lands that had been overgrazed and were often badly eroded to slowly recover. In effect, it was an early form of restoration.

A few decades later, the Forest Service practiced another early form of restoration on “the lands that nobody wanted”—tens of millions of acres of cut-over, burned-over, farmed-out lands in the East and Midwest. These lands were once prone to catastrophic fires, floods, and erosion; placed under Forest Service care, today they are flourishing national forests, providing outdoor enjoyment and other benefits for millions of Americans each year. Visitors now find a rough approximation of the forested landscapes used by American Indians before European settlement.

Early restoration efforts supported Forest Service goals without ever driving national policy in the way that commercial resource extraction did in the postwar period. However, as America steadily urbanized in the course of the 20th century, the Nation’s values changed, and Americans demanded a corresponding shift in the way their public lands were used and managed (MacCleery 2006). Partly in response—but also because it was the right thing to do, based on new scientific insights into ecological processes—the Forest Service developed new ecosystem-based approaches to national forest management in the late 1980s and 1990s. Concomitantly, restoration and outdoor recreation supplanted timber as the agency’s main focus.

Skeptics have noted that ecological restoration has no powerful, well-organized constituency to sustain it, such as the timber industry. During the custodial era, however, the Forest Service had no such constituency, either; yet the agency flourished, winning broad public support based on its commitment to conservation and partnerships with local communities. Although large-scale timber producers no longer rely on the national forests, the Forest Service still enjoys a “bedrock of support” in “rural communities across the country” (Sample 2000), including from small operators in the forest products industry. In fact, “a constituency for restoration and fuels treatments may now be emerging at the local community level” (MacCleery 2006). Even old ecowarriors—once implacable foes of the Forest Service for its supposed timber bias—have welcomed the change in Forest Service focus and called for collaboration (Friedman 2006; Vaughan 2006).

Restoration Opportunities

Restoration has enormous collaborative appeal, one of its most promising aspects. After decades of bitter conflict over national forest management, restoration could form a basis for a new collaborative consensus (Bosworth and Brown 2007). Restoration work generally resonates with the public, because it delivers values and services that people want—and cannot afford to lose—such as clean water or fire protection. A restoration opportunity can bring community stakeholders together to find common values and agree on the actions needed to reach shared goals. By promoting community-based stewardship, restoration can broaden public participation in national forest management.

Community fire protection plans are a case in point. Thousands of communities nationwide are surrounded by fire-adapted forests in poor condition, particularly long-needle forest types such as ponderosa pine. Working with Forest Service specialists and managers, communities can reduce local fire hazards through landscape-scale restoration treatments such as thinning and burning. Often, the work can be accomplished through a community-based stewardship contract that bundles various projects to support restoration and outdoor recreation, including forest health treatments, stream restoration, and campground improvements. Jobs and forest products are often generated as a byproduct. In fact, roughly 75 to 80 percent of the timber from national forest land now comes from projects for other purposes, such as fuels reduction, habitat improvement, and ecological restoration (Timko 2006).

To borrow a metaphor from economics, restoration projects amount to investments in the nation’s natural capital. Forests and grasslands are working natural capital that delivers clean water, stable soils, flood control, and other so-called ecosystem services—dividends people get from past investments in healthy ecosystems. The Forest Service uses congressional allocations, partner contributions, and (to a far lesser extent) the proceeds from forest products to invest in the natural capital needed to furnish ecosystem services from national forest land. In so doing, the agency plays the traditional Government role of delivering public goods from public lands.

On private land, however, investment opportunities are declining, partly due to changing timber market conditions—but also because few ecosystem services have any value on the free market. Were the market to place a natural-capital value on the forests and grasslands that deliver ecosystem services, it would be tremendous; a preliminary estimate of the ecosystem-services value of the national forests and grasslands alone, based on work by researchers at the Forest Service and the University of Florida, is in the trillions of dollars (Collins 2006). Yet because it does not, that value is threatened. Every day, almost 4,000 acres of working farms and ranches are lost to development;3 and forests, too, are being fragmented and destroyed. Some 44.2 million acres of private forests in the conterminous United States are at risk of development by 2030 (Stein and others 2005)—about 6 percent of the Nation’s remaining forest estate, much of it in areas critical for water quality and biodiversity.

The problem is what economists call market failure. To some degree, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations can offset market failure by paying private landowners for conservation easements or by delivering various forms of financial and technical assistance. However, such programs have not been enough to stop the loss of open space to development. Population growth and the desire for prosperity will continue to increase pressures for development.

We cannot turn back the clock, but we can promote smart growth by harnessing the power of the marketplace. Through careful market manipulation, the value that people get from ecosystem services can be translated into dollars and cents. One way is through certification schemes that draw on the willingness of consumers to pay a premium for wood generated from sustainably managed forests. Another way is through credit-trading schemes that pay landowners for delivering ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity protection, or water purification. By encouraging certification and by facilitating credit-trading schemes, the Forest Service can help create opportunities for ecological restoration on private land (Collins 2006).

Focus on the Future

The Forest Service has not lost its way. To the contrary, the agency has found a new way to move conservation forward at a time when scientists and forest managers have recognized the importance of focusing on healthy ecosystems—and when the main things that Americans want from the national forests and grasslands are clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. For a century or more, Americans have drawn down their natural capital on public and private lands alike. It is time to reverse that trend by investing in the forests and grasslands that future generations will depend on for the ecosystem services they need.

The key is ecological restoration. Today, the primary focus of the Forest Service is on working with partners and local communities to restore healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems—ecosystems that can deliver a full range of goods, values, and services. Where ecosystems are in trouble, the Forest Service’s role is to restore them to health. What we leave on the land is more important than what we take away.


We would like to thank those who reviewed or contributed to this paper, including Sally Collins, Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; Glen Contreras, Fisheries Science Researcher for the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; Tom Crow, Landscape Ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; William Lange, Director of Policy Analysis, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; Jim Morrison, IREMCG Staff Assistant for the U.S. Forest Service, Missoula, MT; and Fred Norbury, Associate Deputy Chief for the National Forest System, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC. We would also like to thank H.B. “Doc” Smith, Associate Director of the Ecological Restoration Institute in Flagstaff, AZ, for providing the photo used to illustrate the article.

End Notes

1This article appeared in Journal of Forestry 105(4) [June 2007]: 208–211.

2The states are Arizona (the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, 2002); California (the Cedar Fire, one of fourteen fires that burned simultaneously in southern California in 2003); Colorado (the Hayman Fire, 2002); New Mexico (the Ponil Fire, 2002); and Oregon (the Biscuit Fire, 2002). Alaska has also seen uncharacteristic fire activity and its largest fire in modern history (the Taylor Complex Fire in 2005), probably due to climate change; however, unlike elsewhere, human impacts on fire ecology—and the concomitant fire danger—have otherwise been minimal.

3A net figure based on the growth in developed land from 1982 to 2003, mostly at the expense of crop- and pastureland (NRCS 2003).


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Bosworth, D.; Birdsey, R.; Joyce, L.; Millar, C. 2007. Climate change and the nation’s forests: Challenges and opportunities. Journal of Forestry [submitted].

Bosworth, D; Brown, H. 2007. After the timber wars: Collaborative community-based stewardship. Journal of Forestry [in print].

Collins, S. 2006. The Forest Service’s role in markets for ecosystem services. Presentation at conference: Portland Katoomba; 8 June 2006; Portland, OR. http://www.fs.fed.us/news/2006/speeches/06/ecosystem-services.shtml, last accessed May 2007.

ERI (Ecological Restoration Institute). 2005. Forest Service practitioner’s workshop; 24–25 May; Grants Pass, NM.

Fairfax, S. K. 2005. When an agency outlasts its time: A reflection. Journal of Forestry 103(4): 264 – 266.

Fitzsimmons, A. 1999. Defending illusions: Federal protection of ecosystems. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Little Publishers.

Friedman, M. 2006. The Forest Service is dead: Long live the Forest Service! Grist Magazine. 28 February. http://www.grist.org, last accessed May 2007.

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Langston, N. 1995. Forest dreams, forest nightmares: The paradox of old growth in the Inland West. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

MacCleery, D. 2006. Reinventing the U.S. Forest Service: Evolution of the national forests from custodial management, to production forestry, to ecosystem management. A case study for the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission. Unpublished draft paper on file at the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC.

Nelson, R.H. 2000. A burning issue: A case for abolishing the U.S. Forest Service. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service). 2006. Total surface area by land cover (table), 1982–2003. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/land/nri03/nri03landuse-mrb.html#SurfaceAreaTable, last accessed May 2007.

O’Toole, R. 1997. Expect the Forest Service to be slowly emasculated. The Seattle Times, May 7.

RFT (Restoration Framework Team). 2006. Ecosystem restoration: A framework for restoring and maintaining the national forests and grasslands. Washington, DC: U.S. Forest Service.

Sample, V.A. 2000. The more things change … The challenge continues. In: Sedjo, Roger A. A vision for the U.S. Forest Service: Goals for its next century. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future: 205–212.

Sedjo, R.A. 2000. Does the Forest Service have a future? A thought-provoking view. In: Sedjo, Roger A. A vision for the U.S. Forest Service: Goals for its next century. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future: 176–190.

Shields, D.J.; Martin, I.M.; Martin, W.E.; Haefele, M.A. 2002. Survey results of the American public’s values, objectives, beliefs, and attitudes regarding forests and grasslands. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-95. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Stein, S.M.; McRoberts, R.E.; Alig, R.J.; Nelson, M.D.; Theobald, D.M.; Eley, M.; Dechter, M.; Carr, M. 2005. Forests on the edge: Housing development on America’s private forests. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-636. Portland, OR: U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Timko, B. 2006. Personal comment. January 25. Deputy Director, Forest Management, U.S. Forest Service, Washington Office, Washington, DC.

Vaughan, R. 2006. Kicking dirt and drinking beer: The dynamics of moving conservation from conflict to cooperation. Presentation at conference: 6th Annual Meeting, Southeastern Working Group of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation; 24 February 2006; Andalusia , AL.

The states are Arizona (the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, 2002); California (the Cedar Fire, one of fourteen fires that burned simultaneously in southern California in 2003); Colorado (the Hayman Fire, 2002); New Mexico (the Ponil Fire, 2002); and Oregon (the Biscuit Fire, 2002). Alaska has also seen uncharacteristic fire activity and its largest fire in modern history (the Taylor Complex Fire in 2005), probably due to climate change; however, unlike elsewhere, human impacts on fire ecology—and the concomitant fire danger—have otherwise been minimal.

A net figure based on the growth in developed land from 1982 to 2003, mostly at the expense of crop- and pastureland (NRCS 2003).


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