Eastern Centennial Forum, The Forest Service: A Story of Change

Dale Bosworth, Chief
Centennial Forum
Chicago, IL
— November 9, 2004

Welcome! It’s a pleasure to be here today with so many of our partners and collaborators. We’re here to celebrate a hundred years of partnership and collaboration and to prepare for the next hundred years by seeing what we can learn from the past.

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. Right now, I’d like to help set the stage by saying a little about our past in the Forest Service, about where I see us today, and about the challenges ahead.

I’ll start with 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 “the needs of present and future generations” differently than I do. Some people say we’re in trouble because our mission isn’t clear enough.

Yes, there’s always been some ambiguity built into our mission. But does that ambiguity doom our enterprise? I don’t think so. 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. I’d like to illustrate that by talking about some of the periods we’ve been through.


We all know the story of how conservation originated a hundred years ago at a time of natural resource waste. Species like elk and passenger pigeon 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 national forests were created. 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 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. We delivered social programs and jobs, especially through the CCC. Every national forest had at least one CCC camp, and we gave jobs to thousands of unemployed Americans in all those CCC camps. 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. 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.

But timber wasn’t all we did from the 1960s to the 1980s. 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. Public values were changing. The first Earth Day in 1970 sent a major signal, as did the environmental legislation of the 1970s. The public wanted more of a say in our management, and they wanted more of a focus on wildlife, water, wilderness, and recreation.

Restoration and Recreation

In response, we moved toward ecosystem management. The 1990s were a transitional period, where we no longer focused primarily on timber production. 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.

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. 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. Americans want those 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 decision making. We believe that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away.

Future Challenges

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. First, there are the Four Threats we’ve been talking about:

  • fire and fuels, including fuels buildups from forest stands killed by insects and disease;
  • invasive species, like Asian longhorned beetle or emerald borer;
  • the loss of natural areas to development—forest loss is especially troubling in the Eastern Region; and
  • recreational use that is outstripping our management capacity and damaging resources, particularly the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles.

But there are also some other concerns. Our recent Chief’s Reviews have found some common themes, including the sheer scale of what we face. Besides the Four Threats, our review teams noted several concerns:

  • a huge backlog of work to complete—thousands of deteriorating culverts to replace, 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;
  • oversubscribed water resources and deteriorating watersheds in many parts of the country, made worse by rapid population growth; and, finally,
  • rising levels of ozone and other substances in the atmosphere, causing problems like acid rain in many parts of the East.

In the Northeast and Midwest, we’ve also got huge challenges associated with urban natural resource stewardship and reconnecting communities to the land. 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.

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.

Community-Based Forestry

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.

So are we in trouble because our mission focus has changed over time? I don’t think so. Change has always been part of our history. The ability to change has always been key to our success.

What’s also changed is the way we deliver what people want. We’ve learned the need for more upfront public involvement in our decision making. 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.

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.

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 now in, 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 the upcoming Centennial Congress is a suitable forum for this issue. 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. I look forward to the Centennial Congress as a springboard for improving the way we work together to meet the challenges of the future—and to prepare ourselves for the changes to come.