Rocky Mountain Centennial Forum,The Forest Service: Mission, Change, and Partnerships

Centennial Forum
Fort Collins, CO
— November 9, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be here tonight. I’m particularly glad that so many of our partners and collaborators have been asked to contribute to this forum. I think it goes to show that the Forest Service is really about more than just the parts of the agency or even our own employees. The Forest Service has always been about partnerships—about getting together with our collaborators and figuring out how we can work together to reach our common goals.

Mission Statement

The partnership theme fits with the topic I was asked to address tonight—“the Forest Service mission—legally and culturally.” A historian in the Washington Office recently told me that the Forest Service never had a formal mission statement until fairly lately. Over the years, everyone generally knew what it was, and there were always lots of catchwords for it: the “greatest good for the greatest number in the long run” … “sustained-yield forestry” … “multiple-use management” … “caring for the land and serving people” … and, more recently, “ecosystem management.” But Congress has never given us an unambiguous mission statement.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a mission statement. Here it is: “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” Sounds pretty good to me. The problem is, some people will always see “health, diversity, and productivity” or “the needs of present and future generations” differently than other people. Ambiguity is built into our mission.

Some have argued that we’re therefore in deep trouble because we don’t have a clear purpose anymore. But does 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. I think our history bears that out, and that’s what I’d like to talk about tonight. I’ll focus on the National Forest System, although I think it also applies to State and Private Forestry and Research.


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, and the Forest Service was charged with managing them. In 1905, Gifford Pinchot 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 timber, water, range, minerals, game, and 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. 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 where we gave jobs to thousands of unemployed Americans. 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, as did the environmental legislation of the 1970s. 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.

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 decision-making. 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. For the past 2 to 3 years, we’ve been conducting Chief’s Reviews of the Forest Service at the regional level, and we’ve found some common concerns:

  • enormous threats from fire, fuels, insects, and disease—Hayman comes to mind, plus some of the beetle kill we’re seeing in lodgepole pine in the Rockies;
  • a huge threat from the spread of invasive species—tamarisk is a classic example;
  • the loss of working farms, forests, and ranches on the Colorado Front Range and elsewhere;
  • recreational use that is outstripping our management capacity and damaging resources, particularly the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles;
  • 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—a huge problem here in Colorado; and
  • rising levels of substances in the atmosphere, from ozone to carbon dioxide, that are damaging ecosystems nationwide.

Any one of these problems alone would be huge. When you put them all together, you get some idea of the sheer 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.

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.

And it’s also a story of change in the way we deliver what people want. A hundred years ago, 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 decision-making.

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. 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.

Improving Collaboration

In closing, our mission is important: It’s about caring for the land and serving people. But it’s never been set in stone—and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, because it has given us the flexibility to cope with changing values and natural resource challenges. I think our history shows that we’ve always adapted to change by working through partnerships. More than anything else, I think that’s been the key to our success.

In the period we’re in now, 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.