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U.S. Forest Service
Caring for the land and serving people

United States Department of Agriculture

A Historical Perspective

Organic Administration Act of 1897

Unlike the national parks, which were created primarily to preserve natural beauty and unique outdoor recreation opportunities, the founders of early national forests envisioned them as working forests with multiple objectives. The Organic Administration Act of 1897, under which most national forests were established, states: "No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States…"

Weeks Law of 1911

Several national forests were created under the Weeks Law of 1911 to restore forests on formerly private lands that had been heavily logged or cleared for agriculture. That law authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to "…examine, locate, and purchase such forested, cutover, or denuded lands within the watersheds of navigable streams as in his judgment may be necessary to the regulation of the flow of navigable streams or for the production of timber." Many of today’s Eastern national forests were acquired under the Weeks Law. Their healthy condition today can be directly attributed to past reforestation efforts by the Forest Service and partners such as the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Pre- and Post-World War II

Graph displaying increasing timber harvest from 1905, peaking from 1975 to 1990, and declining since.

Until World War II, the Forest Service primarily focused on watershed protection, forest restoration, and wildfire prevention and suppression. Since there were abundant supplies of private timber, very little national forest logging occurred during this period (refer to the graph to the right).

During the post-World War II housing boom, national forests were viewed as a ready supply of building material. The increased demand for timber from national forests led to more widespread use of commodity-oriented harvesting techniques such clearcutting. Along with the increased logging that followed, concern over the environment increased. In the 1960's and 1970's, several laws were enacted to protect forests. Additional laws formalized the concept of "multiple-use," whereby the uses of timber, forage, and water shared equal footing with wildlife conservation and recreation opportunities. As the attached chart illustrates, timber sales on national forests increased to the 12 billion board foot mark during this period. At the same time, the United States began importing more wood to help meet increasing demand. The country continues to import more wood than it exports.

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