6 Dec 2007, 4:06pm
by admin

National Forests at a Crossroads

by John F. Marker

[John Marker is a retired Forest Service District Ranger, Fire Management, and Information Officer and a co-founder of Wildland Firefighter Magazine. This article was first published in National Forestry, (Sp ‘07, here), the magazine of the National Forestry Association, 374 Maple Ave East, Suite 310, Vienna, VA 22180.]

Reaffirmation of the mission of the National Forests

The Organic Act of 1897 was explicit in describing the reasons for establishing the National Forest System: to provide a sustainable supply of water and timber for the use of citizens, and to allow other uses that did not diminish the ability of the forests to provide the primary resources. However, legal and policy debates over management of the lands for the past 40 years or so have clouded the original intent of the Act. Today, in my opinion, few people understand the fundamental reason the National Forests were established, including some agency employees and too many political leaders.

It seems to me the future of the forests rests upon some form of new top-level federal process to clarify both the purpose of the forests and the direction that their management should be heading. A second component of the process must be a public awareness program to promote understanding of the National Forests’ essential natural resources role, which is essential before successful land management can be carried out. Clearly, a serious effort needs to be made to resolve the endless controversy surrounding the concept of scientific forest management, and a clarification of the mission.

Even if there were no controversy, a National Forest mission review would seem appropriate, considering that it’s been 100 years since the last one was carried out. Over the past century, the country’s natural resources needs and desires have changed dramatically. In the 1890s, for example, people were predicting a national timber famine, which was a major motivator for creating the National Forest system.

The feared timber famine didn’t occur, but other important resources provided by the National Forest system have been identified and developed. Today, at least in the West, the need for water from the National Forests is a becoming a major resource issue. In addition, many people believe the National Forests’ priorities should include carbon storage, increased wildlife habitat, energy production, open space, recreation, scenic beauty and economic stability in surrounding communities. Timber, once a top priority, is now seen by some as a byproduct of other management activities, and no longer a priority.

Laws and Regulations

A reaffirmation of the National Forests’ mission needs to be followed by a review of the laws and policies governing the forests and their management. These laws need to be evaluated, coordinated and streamlined. Currently, many seem to respond to ideology and special interest agendas, rather than good science and professional wisdom. This maze of often conflicting laws, regulations and policies creates an almost impenetrable web of paperwork, which drains staff time, uses increasingly scarce financial resources, creates endless barriers for managers, frustrates agency people, confuses the lay public, irritates state and local governments, while doing little to improve on-the-ground forest protection and management.

Legal controls are essential for managing the public lands, but they certainly need to be thought through in terms of their value to the resource, basic legality, efficiency, effectiveness for management, accountability and protection of the public’s interest.

Dale Bosworth, the recently-retired chief of the Forest Service, coined the term “Analysis Paralysis” to express his frustration with the often overlapping, conflicting and redundant rules and regulations governing the management of forest lands. He made a valiant effort to reduce the problem, but with very limited success.


Funds for managing and protecting the National Forests have been on a downward path since the early 1990s. The 2008—and future year—federal budgets continue this trend. There seems to be little concern by budget preparers about the impact of their cuts on the forests, or on the surrounding lands and communities. Given massive federal deficits there is no easy answer, but budget starvation will lead to the eventual demise of the forests as we know them. Even in good budget years, federal natural resources do not fare well in Congress when competing with other programs like health care, education, urban development, social welfare or defense.

One possible solution may be an expanded use of “enviroeconomics,” which is simply economic analysis of things traditionally considered free or impossible to assign an economic value to. For example, the value of hiking or wildlife watching has historically not been associated with economic value, but it in recent years more attention is being paid to such uses by serious economists, and more study would seem to be appropriate.

The possibility of increasing fees for the casual use of forests and more of the renewable resources they produce needs more consideration, unpopular as it may be. New and increased fees will raise public outrage, but if the forests are going to survive and be available for future generations, some hard decisions are needed. In addition, assigning monetary value to National Forest resources will inevitably raise public awareness.

One potential source of funding for the National Forests, for example, would be a management and protection charge for water flowing from National Forest watersheds. It seems logical that off-site users of federally produced water have a financial interest in keeping the watershed productive, and thus ought to be willing to pay for its continued availability.


For many years the Forest Service has been losing people needed to carry out the management and protection of the National Forests. Budget cuts, program changes, social programs, early retirements, changing population demographics, outsourcing, employee frustration and public attitudes have all contributed to the dramatic declines in staffing, leaving too few well trained, experienced and dedicated people to do the work. A critical loss from the cutbacks is the agency’s institutional memory, especially vital for long term forest management.

In my opinion, many national political leaders, regardless of party affiliation, lack basic knowledge of the skills, experience and dedication needed to manage and protect the forests. Recent budget cutbacks and the current mandated draconian outsourcing studies are good examples of how little the political operatives understand—or seem to care—about forest management.


Abe Lincoln is credited with saying, “With public support anything is possible; without public support nothing is possible.” The adage sums up the final major problem I see for the federal forests. Few people today know why the federal forest system exists. Most of the public sees federal forestland simply as “park” lands.

Resolving forest management issues is going to require an intense and continuing major public relations effort to inform the public of what the federal forests are about, why they are important to individuals and what citizens need to do to assure the future of these legacy lands.

[This paper was also posted at SOS Forests [here] ]

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