Centennial Mini-Histories of the Forest Service

Chapter 24
Forest Service: Agency in Transition


The history of the Forest Service can be simplified into two fundamental stages: the custodial era (1905 to 1942) and the commodity production era (1942 to present). At the time of its founding, in 1905, the Forest Service had a legacy of timber sales but they were minor in scale because private lands were logged off first to meet the national market needs for lumber. By the 1920's, however, a soaring economy led to a record peak of national forest timber sales of 1.65 billion board feet in 1930. The Great Depression shrunk harvests for a decade, then a new peak was reached of 1.78 billion in 1940. That was quickly topped as wartime defense needs stimulated harvests off national forests (the 1942 level was 2.2 billion). Yet, even then only 2 percent of the national supply of timber came from the national forests.

The postwar demographic and economic surge accelerated demand for housing and gave the agency the opportunity to expand national forest timber harvests. This it did with zest, moving from a level of 3 billion board feet in 1950 to 9 billion board feet in 1960. These were years of growth in employment in the agency that started with about 500 permanent personnel in 1905. It reached 1,800 by 1920, increasing to 5,700 by 1930 and 7,484 by 1949. Even larger increases took place in the postwar period with the number of employees reaching 21,953 by 1979 and a total of 32,375 by 1990. Agency foresters predicted that the demand for saw timber would continue and that, by the year 2000, the national forests would need to produce 20 billion board feet. Instead, volume peaked in 1987 with an all-time record high of 12.7 billion and dropped to 12 billion in 1989, which was 13 percent of the wood harvested in the Nation.

The massive road building and timber sales during the postwar stage of Forest Service history signified a major change in agency image that not all the public accepted. The ranger on horseback who patrolled the forest for fire prevention gave way to the road construction inspector and timber sale administrator wearing a hard hat and driving a green pickup.

Local citizens, usually active recreationists, were first to protest specific projects that would alter the environment in ways they didn't like. In time, local concerns over herbicide use, timber harvest levels, and so on became national issues, much to the dismay of timber-dependent communities and ranchers who grazed their animals on national forests and grasslands. National environmental groups are seeking to reduce timber harvest levels and livestock numbers on national forests and grasslands. After generations of earning a livelihood by logging and ranching on public lands, residents of rural areas find their way of life challenged by urban "outsiders," and many of them find these changes threatening.

Inside the Forest Service, the same debates echo, with often younger, or at least newer, employees with nontraditional backgrounds and professions (biologists, archeologists, and other "ologists") arguing for a return to the custodial mode or a more environmentally sensitive management. Meanwhile, employees who entered the agency as foresters during the heyday of the development era (1950's and 1960's) respond that the Nation needs jobs and goods provided by commodity production on national forests and grasslands.

At this moment, the explosive issue of the ultimate mission of the Forest Service is in the political arena, where it will ultimately be decided by Congress. A key to the issue is appropriations because funding levels shape the amount of attention that the agency can devote to the mix of resources it manages. As an example of the boom years, from 1954 to 1970, the Forest Service received 66 percent of the budget increases it requested for timber sales administration, but only 20 percent of its requested increases for recreation and wildlife, 17 percent for reforestation, and 15 percent for soil and water management (Weitzman 1977:37). In the meantime, the workforce gropes, one day at a time, toward another, as yet unknown, stage of land management.

In addition, the agency must adapt to other social changes, including the entry of nonwhites and women into the agency in numbers matching their profile in the civilian labor force. This internal change accelerated following the civil rights movement of the 1960's and 1970's, which resulted in equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws and programs in Government agencies. The Forest Service has also been involved with the Job Corps program since 1964, which has brought in many new employees with different skills, such as teachers and counselors. Yet, in the 1990's there is still a need for an active recruitment and retention effort given the low numbers of women and members of minority groups even as late as 1983, when of the 5,700 professional foresters in the Forest Service, only 450 were women; Geraldine (Geri) B. Larson [now Bergen] became the first female forest supervisor in 1985.

To understand the causes of a shift in the Forest Service to a new stage of land stewardship, any analysis must start with the watershed decade of the 1970's. The first signal of change was the confrontation between industry and environmentalists that ended with passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The Forest Service had hoped to preempt the dispute by getting Congress to pass the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act in 1960. The act "mixed uses, resources, and lands" (Wolf 1990:48) in a list of five purposes of the national forests: outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish. Two key points of the law are that no resource has statutory priority and each is to receive equal consideration in determining the best combination of uses. The problem was who was to decide the mix and on what basis?

The 1964 law allowed Congress to establish wilderness areas on national forests and was only the beginning of public and congressional involvement in Forest Service management practices. The 10-year study on roadless area reviews and evaluations (RARE I and II) stemmed from compliance work required by the Wilderness Act (Roth 1988). Public involvement in agency policy was fostered in part by a law with unintended consequences that was signed by President Richard M. Nixon on January 1, 1970—the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The agency had always consulted with special interest groups, but after NEPA, Congress and the public became directly involved in daily operations of the Forest Service. The act allowed lawsuits to be filed against the agency for noncompliance with the requirement to prepare environmental impact statements on proposed major actions by Federal agencies.

The first important timber management challenge took place in 1969 on the Bitterroot National Forest (Bolle 1989). Later, in 1973, the Forest Service practice of clearcutting on the Monongahela National Forest was challenged in court. The public no longer held the view that "the professional forester knows best" how to manage the national forests. Outsiders were now going to monitor agency activities, and there were several additional laws that helped ensure that the public had a say in land use management practices.

The first law with teeth was the 1973 Endangered Species Act; the next law, the 1974 Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA), requires inventory of resources aimed toward sustained renewable resource production. The 1976 National Forest Management Act replaced and clarified the original Organic Act of 1897 and requires that the Forest Service involve the public more in its decisionmaking and hire people trained in disciplines other than forestry and engineering (Roth and Harmon 1989:27-28). As late as 1960, 90 percent of professional positions were filled with foresters.

Any attempt to summarize the last three decades of agency history is doomed to be incomplete. The servicewide adoption of the Data General (DG) computer system by 1984 reinforced the trend toward greater agency centralization and forced more managers to do their own typing. The fostering of diversity of peoples and occupations is a story still in progress. Conflict continues in the present. Lawsuits over the northern spotted owl and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest are having a major impact on agency practices. Herbicide use was a major issue only a few years ago, with range and salmon on the horizon as the next two resources in the environmental spotlight. What may be a final observation of the move to a new era is that never again will the agency operate without checking the public pulse, because perception and beliefs are stronger arguments than scientific ones alone. The 1990 RPA publication points out the new direction of our transition with its goal of "more balance among the resources."


Bolle, Arnold. 1989. "The Bitterroot revisited: a university review of the Forest Service." Public Land Law Review 10. Denver: University of Colorado.

Roth, Dennis. 1988. The wilderness movement and the national forests. College Station, TX: Intaglio Press.

Roth, D.; Harmon, Frank. 1989. "The Forest Service in the environmental era." Washington, DC: USDA Forest Service History Unit. [Unpublished manuscript.]

Weitzman, Sidney. 1977. "Lessons from the Monongahela experience." Washington, DC: USDA Forest Service History Unit. [Internal report prepared for Chief McGuire.]

Wolf, Robert. 1990. "The concept of multiple use: the evolution of the idea within the Forest Service and the enactment of the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960." Washington, DC: United States Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. [Draft document.]

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>>

Last Updated: 19-Mar-2008