Agency Spotlight—History of the U.S. Forest Service

Jul 13, 2017


The concept of national forests came from Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation group, the Boone and Crockett Club. In 1876, Congress created the Office of Special Agent in the Agriculture Department to assess the quality and conditions of U.S. forests.

In 1881, the office was expanded into the newly formed Division of Forestry. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 authorized withdrawing land from the public domain as “forest reserves”, which was managed by the Department of the Interior. The Division of Forestry became the Bureau of Forestry in 1901.

It became the U.S. Forest Service when the Transfer Act of 1905 transferred the management of forest reserves from the General Land Office of the Interior Department to the Bureau of Forestry.

In February 2009, the Government Accountability Office evaluated whether the Forest Service should be moved from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior, which already has the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. So far, this change has yet to happen.

The following are significant pieces of legislation affecting the Forest Service.

Weeks Act

In 1905, Congress passed the Weeks Act. This Act authorized the government to purchase private lands for stream-flow protection and to maintain lands as national forests. This made it possible to expand the national forest system into the eastern U.S. The Act states that is will “examine, locate, and recommend for purchase…such lands within the watersheds of navigable streams as…may be necessary to the regulations of flow of navigable streams.” Meaning, the government could purchase private land if the purchase was deemed necessary to protect rivers and watersheds in the eastern U.S. It also allowed the land acquired through this Act to be preserved and maintained as national forest territory. With land acquired this way, the Chief Forester could issue permits for water power development in National Forests.

Another thing the Weeks Act did was it provided more cooperation between federal and state governments regarding fire control. The 1910 fire season largely influenced this legislation because it destroyed millions of acres of land in the western U.S. That fire season alone put the U.S. Forest Service $1.1 million in debt.

The Weeks Act also established the National Forest Reservation Commission, which considered and approved the purchase of identified lands. It existed from 1911-1966.

To date, the Weeks Act has protected more than 20,000,000 acres of forest land.

Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960

This Act authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to develop and administer renewable resources of timber, range, water, recreation, and wildlife in National Forests for multiple use and sustained yield of products and services. This is the first law to have the five major uses of National Forests contained in one law equally.

Multiple use is defined as the “management of all various renewable surface resources of national forests so they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the needs of the American people.”

Sustained yield is defined as the “achievement and maintenance in perpetuity of a high-level annual or regular periodic output of various renewable resources of national forests without impairment of the productivity of the land.”

Wilderness Act

The Act created the legal definition of wilderness in the U.S.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself, is a visitor who doesn’t remain.”

It took 60+ drafts and 8 years to sign this into law.

National Forest Management Act of 1976

This is the primary statute governing the administration of National Forests. The main objectives of this Act include requiring the U.S. Forest Service to develop plans for National Forests, set standards for timber sales, and create policies to regulate timber harvesting.

National Environmental Policy Act

This act promotes the enhancement of the environment. The most significant outcome was the requirement that all executive federal agencies prepare environmental assessments and environmental impact statements. These reports state potential environmental effects of proposed federal agency actions. However, this does not apply to the President, Congress, or Federal courts.

Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974

This Act authorized the long-range planning by the U.S. Forest Service to ensure the future of forest resources while maintaining a quality environment.

Timeline of History

  • 1876—Office of Special Agent for forest research is created in the Department of Agriculture to assess the state of forests in the U.S.
  • 1881—Office of Special Agent is expanded into the newly formed Division of Forestry.
  • 1891—Forest Reserve Act of 1891 authorizes the withdrawal of land from public domain as “forest reserves”—managed by the Department of the Interior.
  • 1901—Division of Forestry is renamed the Bureau of Forestry.
  • 1905—The Transfer Act of 1905 transfers management of the forest reserves from the General Land Office (within the Department of the Interior) to the Bureau of Forestry (within the Agriculture Department). This is when the name changed to the Forest Service.
  • 1910—The Great Fire of 1910.
  • 1911—The Weeks Act authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to purchase cutover and other forested lands for flood or fire control. This led to the expansion of National Forests in the eastern U.S. and the protection and restoration of millions of acres of land.
  • 1922—The General Land Exchange Act of 1922 authorized the Secretary of the Interior to obtain title to privately owned land located within National Forest boundaries.
  • 1944—The Forest Service begins a campaign stating, ‘Only YOU can prevent forest fires” using Smokey the Bear.
  • 1946-1960—National Forests experienced increased demand on forest resources especially timber and recreation.
  • 1960-1980—The Forest Service shifts its focus to managing the land as integrated systems, instead of individual resources.
  • 1989—Chief’s new perspectives initiative stresses ecosystem management and sustainability and is aimed to place timber management in line with forest values like biodiversity, water quality, and recreation.
  • 2001—The National Fire Plan is created to address buildup of fuels caused by decades of fire suppression, climate change and developments adjacent to forests.

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