The USDA Forest Service:

History and Focus

Report by Lori Anderson

The USDA Forest Service is a government agency that oversees the maintenance of the United States National Forests. They are a division of the Department of Agriculture, and as such have a responsibility to provide services for the American public with regards to the use of the National Forests. They have identified seven general concerns which they list in their web page. They concern themselves with fuel buildups, invasion of exotic pests, loss of biodiversity, wildland/urban interface areas, air pollution, degraded riparian areas, and changed disturbance patterns. The Forest Service hasn't always had all of these concerns, but they have developed over the many decades the Forest Service has been in existence.

The Forest Service was established in 1905 by President Teddy Roosevelt for the purpose of managing and conserving the National Forests. However, the Forest Service doesn't merely focus on conservation, but actually participates in logging. The shift began in 1922 when the Secretary of Agriculture authorized selling of national forests in exchange for private land. They also authorized grazing permits in national forests in 1925, further increasing their income. The first logging roads were allowed in 1931 to go through the former GILA WILDERNESS. In 1944, the Forest Service "invited timber companies to build mills throughout the West," with the passage of the "Sustained-Yield Forest Management Act." The "National Forest Management Act" of 1976 required management plans for every national forest so the potential environmental problems and impacts could be seen and recognized. However, by 1980, there were still logging roads being used and built that exceeded 350,000 miles of roads. President Clinton tried to slow logging in the old-growth forests with the "Northwest Forest Plan" in 1994, but a year later he signed the budget bill that had a "salvage-logging" rider attatched which allows clearcutting of trees in National forests. (Historical information from: Kristin Sykes, "A Brief History of National Forests", The Planet, June 1997). Today, because of logging, virgin, old-growth forests are down to 5 percent of the original amount. "The US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have become major suppliers to the timber industry."

The Forest Service does do a lot of monitoring of forest health, including research in areas such as Tree Mortality, Tree Regenteration, Soils, Tree Damage, Estimating Status and Change in Forest Health, and many other areas. However, it is unclear if their use this information is for the purposes of conservation.

The current Congress has seen a lot of legislation on issues relating to the forests and conservation, but many of the bills are killed following their referral to subcommittees. Two recent bills from 1997 that are currently being reviewed by subcommittees are HR 1861, the Forest Biodiversity Act of 1997, and HR 2789, the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act of 1997. They have not yet been reitroduced. One Bill directly impacting the US Forest Service, however, that did get through the political process and was passed, is HR 2107, Interior Department FY98 Appropriations Bill. It passed the House in October '97 and the Senate in September '97. This bill makes appropriations for the Forest Service in particular as well as several special interest groups to fund various programs ranging from conservation issues to general park upkeep. The bill indicates the relationship the Forest Service has with the timber industry as it mentions timber several times. Though it doesn't encourage use of funds for increased timber production, it doesn't call for any major changes either. Of the timber from giant sequoias it prohibits the use of funds "for sale in a manner different than such sales were conducted in FY 1995" (sec.308). The bill establishes a treasury fund called "Environmental Improvement and Restoration Fund," which is available for maintenance and modernization projects that the National Park Service and other national groups have.

The Forest Service continues to take part in making decisions in the management of the valuable natural resources in our National forests. It is important to be aware of what they are supporting so we can take an active part in securing the future of our forests through conservation.