USDA FOREST SERVICE : Strategic Planning and Resource Assessment

Forest Service at a Glance

Founding Legislation and History of the Forest Service's Traditional Role

A century ago, the idea of conservation of Federal forests culminated with Congress’ passing the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, creating forest reserves from public domain land. Six years later, Congress passed the 1897 Organic Act (part of the Sundry Civil Appropriations Act), giving the U.S. Department of the Interior General Land Office and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) three management goals for those forest reserves:

  • Improve and protect the public forests;
  • Secure favorable water flows; and
  • Provide a continuous supply of timber, under regulation.

In 1905, these responsibilities were transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to a newly created bureau, the Forest Service, and in 1907 the forest reserves were renamed as national forests. In those early days, the Forest Service was responsible for the conservation and the protection of the forests.

The Weeks Law of 1911 enabled the Federal Government to purchase forest lands in the East that had been previously harvested. Those purchased lands were then transferred to the Forest Service. Throughout the agency’s early history, the Forest Service’s primary activities, in addition to conservation and protection, included developing trails, ranger stations, and a pool of expert natural resource managers.

The Great Depression was incentive for a massive youth employment program–—the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—with some 3 million enrollees over a 9-year period. The CCC’s focus was in developing recreation and fire protection on the national forests, as well as on other Federal and State lands.

After World War II, the Forest Service worked with Congress to provide lumber for the rapidly growing home market. During the 1950s, timber management became an area of emphasis for the agency. Timber production increased through the 1960s and 1970s. In 1960, Congress passed the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act. This act gave recreation, fish, wildlife, water, wilderness, and grazing priority, along with timber management, conservation and protection, and Forest Service resource planning.

The passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 provided additional protection for a national system of wildernesses in the national forests and applied to the missions of the other Federal land management agencies as well. Additional legislation throughout the 1970s addressed the management of roadless areas on national forests.

The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976 brought 10-year forest management plans to the Forest Service. From this period throughout the 1990s, the Forest Service saw increased public debate and public involvement in the management of natural resources, especially from environmental, timber industry, and other interest groups and stakeholders.

This keen and proactive public involvement resulted in many of the Forest Service’s large-scale assessments: the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project in the Pacific Northwest; the Southern Forest Resource Assessment for the southeastern portion of the country; and the Sierra Nevada Framework for Conservation and Collaboration covering the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.