19 Jun 2009, 1:43pm
Management Philosophy Policy
by admin

Re-Inventing the United States Forest Service: Evolution from Custodial Management, to Production Forestry, to Ecosystem Management

Doug MacCleery. 2008. Re-Inventing the United States Forest Service: Evolution from Custodial Management, to Production Forestry, to Ecosystem Management, IN Reinventing Forestry Agencies: Experiences of Institutional Restructuring in Asia and the Pacific, Edited by: Patrick Durst, Chris Brown, Jeremy Broadhead, Regan Suzuki, Robin Leslie and Akiko Inoguchi. Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission, FAO-UN, RAP Pub 2008/05.

Douglas W. MacCleery is Senior Policy Analyst, Forest Management Staff, USDA, Forest Service, Washington, DC

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Forest policy and institutional frameworks in all countries are fashioned according to their larger sociopolitical context, traditions and history. A major factor in shaping the historical sociopolitical context in the United States has been decentralization. At the time of their independence from England, the 13 original colonies entered the union as largely autonomous entities or “states” — and over time they have guarded this status jealously. In spite of this, over more recent decades, many policy and institutional functions have been centralized at national or federal levels. This trend has been slow at times — and has often been resisted by the states — with occasional attempts to reverse such centralization.


Throughout the nineteenth century, United States policy encouraged rapid settlement and economic development of its western territory. To accomplish this, a variety of approaches were developed, including transfer of federal (public domain) lands to individual farmers, ranchers and corporations, especially railroad companies that built transportation infrastructure.

After 1850, the population grew rapidly (20 to 25 percent per decade) and settlement of the western territories accelerated. Concerns began to be voiced over some of the environmental and economic implications of rapid development, including: (1) accelerated deforestation (forests were being cleared for agriculture at the rate of almost 3 500 hectares per day); (2) massive wildfires due to logging and land clearing (wildfires annually razed 8 to 20 million hectares); (3) extensive areas of “cut-over” land or “stump lands” remained unstocked or poorly stocked with trees for decades (estimated at 32.5 million hectares in 1920); (4) significant soil erosion by wind and water in some places; and (5) major wildlife depletion due to commercial hunting and subsistence use (Trefethen 1975; Williams 1989; MacCleery 1992). It was gradually recognized that these conditions were jeopardizing future economic development, as well as being concerns in their own right.

Early 1900s: conservation policy framework

A number of policy and institutional changes were put in place during the early decades of the twentieth century (MacCleery 1992). This conservation policy framework included:

* Closing the public domain to further private land disposal and reserving the remaining public lands (most of which were in the western part of the country) for protection and management, as national forests, national parks and national wildlife refuges.

* Promoting and encouraging the protection of forests and grasslands — across all ownership categories — from wildfire, insects and disease.

* Improving natural resource management by acquiring scientific knowledge on the management of forests and wildlife and on the more efficient utilization of raw materials.

* Improving the management and productivity of both agricultural lands and forests through technical and financial assistance to farmers and landowners.

* Adopting and enforcing federal and state wildlife conservation laws.

The rationale for public land reservation in 1900 was watershed protection and timber production. There were major concerns at the time that forest depletion would lead to timber shortages, even a “timber famine” (Williams 1989). In 1900, wood was considered an essential raw material for both industrial and domestic use. …

Rather than transferring the remaining 30 percent of forest lands to private ownership or giving administrative responsibility to the states or local authorities, the United States opted for direct federal administration of much of the remaining public domain lands. This decision was a significant one which has, over the years, substantially affected the political dynamics under which these lands have been administered.

The Forest Service, established under the United States Department of Agriculture, became the primary government agency for administering the national forests and supporting collaborative forest management across the country.

Federally administered lands are concentrated in the western United States and make up about 261 million hectares. These lands contain approximately 100 million hectares of forest land — or about a third of all forests in the United States. The Forest Service administers 78 million hectares of land, or about 8 percent of the total area of the United States (Table 1).


One of the most significant structural re-organizations in the early years of forest management in the United States occurred when the Forest Service was created in 1905. At that time, management responsibility for the forest reserves was transferred from the Department of the Interior’s General Land Office to the Department of Agriculture. This signified a major change in organizational culture from the land disposal philosophy of the Department of the Interior to the production and scientific management philosophy of the Department of Agriculture.

At the time it was established, the Forest Service was crafted on European models of forest
administration and was characterized by:

* A professional line and staff cadre that was required to pass proficiency exams as a condition of hiring (Roth and Williams 2003).

* A set of core values and a common approach to problem-solving. These values were reenforced by the curricula and cultural values taught in forestry schools.

* A decentralized decision-making structure with considerable discretion given to field managers. This reflected purposeful design, as well as the practicalities of the remote locations and poor communications that existed in forest areas at the time and the high variability of resources and local conditions. Previous requirements for upward reporting and approval that had existed under the Department of the Interior were reduced or eliminated (Roth and Williams 2003).

* The Forest Service becoming the central identity and organizing structure in professional employees’ lives. Employees were required to move frequently if they wanted to advance professionally. This both expanded professional experience and reduced the risk of employees becoming “captured” by local economic interests.

* A “promotion from within” policy, under which the agency prided itself that any professional employee with enough talent (and luck) could aspire to become the Chief of the Forest Service.

For decades the Forest Service was characterized by a management philosophy established early on in its history. Until the 1970s, most Forest Service professional employees were foresters with rural American values who had graduated from forestry schools that taught curricula that re-enforced these values. While the agency had a highly decentralized decision-making structure, what emerged was a remarkably consistent approach to solving problems and viewing the world. …


Hiring of resource specialists One of the responses of the Forest Service to the environmental laws enacted in the 1970s was to rapidly increase the hiring of resource specialists — wildlife biologists, soil scientists, hydrologists, archeologists and other experts. Such specialists were required to prepare environmental analyses under NEPA and forest plans under NFMA, as well as to carry out soil and watershed evaluations, archeological investigations and related activities to enable timber sales to progress in compliance with the new environmental legislation (Fedkiw 1999). Between 1980 and 1985, Forest Service permanent full-time employment rose from about 21,400 to 29,200 employees (Williams 2004a; OPM 2006; HRM 2006).

Many of these specialists were Earth Day graduates; although they were hired to assist in assuring compliance with applicable environmental laws, they also helped change the culture and values of the agency itself. These new employees eventually had a profound impact on the Forest Service. …

Dissent from within the ranks of the Forest Service

… Additional internal dissent came from lower-level employees. For example, Jeff DeBonis, a Forest Service timber sale planner and an Earth Day graduate, broke ranks with the agency in 1989 by sending a seven-page letter directly to Chief Robertson (copied to several members of Congress) raising concerns over Forest Service timber-harvesting policies in the Pacific Northwest. DeBonis later resigned from the Forest Service, but before doing so he established the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (or AFSEEE), with a self-proclaimed role as “environmental conscience” on Forest Service policies and practices.

Dissent from within the ranks of the research community and its culmination in the northern spotted owl controversy

By the mid-1970s, research studies began to reveal that late-successional and old-growth forests provided essential habitats for a suite of wildlife and plant species. In 1981, a summary of this research by eight Forest Service scientists was published in Ecological characteristics of oldgrowth Douglas-fir forests (Franklin et al. 1981).

Scientists such as Jerry Franklin and Chris Maser began to promote a “new” style of forestry (or “New Forestry”) that would reflect the concepts behind this emerging research (Franklin and Forman 1987; Franklin 1989). This new forestry approach involved, among other concepts, leaving downed logs, standing dead trees, clumps of trees and other “biological legacies” within cutting areas. Franklin and Maser developed a broad media and environmental group following as they began to speak out publicly against the existing national forest timber-harvesting policies.

By the mid-1980s the northern spotted owl took centre stage as the “poster child” for species thought to need large areas of old-growth and late-successional forest. As conservation biologists estimated that 1,000 or more nesting spotted owl pairs would likely be required to maintain a viable species population, protection of millions of hectares of old-growth forests was potentially needed to accomplish this objective.

In March 1989, federal district court judge William Dwyer issued an injunction on the harvest of virtually all national forest timber within the range of the northern spotted owl (i.e. western Washington and western Oregon and northern California), and subsequently ordered the Forest Service to revise its standards and guidelines by March 1992 “to ensure the northern spotted owl’s viability”. This created an economic and political crisis.

In October 1989, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formed the Interagency Scientific Committee (ISC), chaired by Forest Service research biologist Jack Ward Thomas. The resulting ISC report, which was issued in May 1990, provided a framework for federal agencies to determine how much federal forest might need to be preserved as owl habitat given various ratings of risk to owl viability (Thomas et al. 1990).

In June 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern spotted owl as “threatened” under the ESA, which required federal agencies to avoid any action that might jeopardize the species regardless of the opportunity costs or economic effects associated with not taking that action. …

The political response to the scientists’ findings

In April 1993, shortly after he assumed office, President Clinton convened a Forest Conference in Portland, Oregon, to consider ways to address the impasse that had existed in the Pacific Northwest for four years. The result was to commission yet another scientific team headed by Forest Service research scientist Jack Ward Thomas. In May 1994, a final proposal was submitted by the Forest Ecosystem Management Team (FEMAT) to Judge Dwyer who lifted his injunction in June 1994. In December 1994, Judge Dwyer affirmed that the plan met the requirements of the ESA, NFMA and other laws.

Under the final decision flowing from FEMAT, now called the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), of the 9.9 million hectares of Forest Service and BLM land covered by the plan, only 16 percent would be available for sustained timber harvesting (another 6 percent would potentially be available in so-called “Adaptive Management Areas”). Timber sale levels in the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region, which had averaged about 62.5 million m3 of timber annually between 1977 and 1989, dropped to an average of just 1.5 million m3 annually between 1999 and 2004 — a 93 percent reduction.

The adoption of the NWFP affirmed a process that had been ongoing for at least a decade, the gradual transfer of significant amounts of power in the Forest Service from line officers and foresters to scientists and agency resource specialists — and from the Forest Service itself to federal regulatory agencies and the courts. …

Downsizing and re-invention under the Clinton Administration

The sharp decline in timber sales resulting from implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan caused a major downsizing of Forest Service programme offices and employees in the Pacific Northwest. Within the area covered by the plan, Forest Service permanent full-time employee equivalents (FTEs) declined by 36 percent between 1993 and 2002, from 8,431 to 5,365 (Figure 6). Several individual national forests saw declines in FTEs of more than 50 percent during this period. …


A key consideration for the future is whether the public concerned with the management of the national forests can come together and forge a working consensus as to how these precious lands are to be managed. There appears to be a growing consensus in favour of a forest restoration/fuels treatment mission for the Forest Service. But a strong constituency for such a mission focus has yet to develop. Former Chief Jack Ward Thomas wrote that national forest stakeholders currently seem to be too engaged in fighting the battles of the past to look to the future (Thomas 2001a):

Fierce in battle, many of the eco-warriors have been unable to come to grips with the consequences of victory and are now reduced to wandering about the old battlefields bayoneting the wounded. Their counterparts from the resource extraction community, likewise, cannot come to terms with defeat and hold “ghost dances” to bring back the good old days when they were undisputed Kings of the West.

Some emerging signs are promising. In a recent opinion piece in Grist magazine, Mitch Friedman, one of Jack Thomas’ “eco-warriors” on the Pacific Coast suggested that it is time for the environmental community to reconsider the newly re-invented Forest Service and change from confrontation to cooperation and collaboration. Friedman writes that the environmental community should “…push to thin overgrown stands before it gets charred. We need to get better at advocating restoration logging before fires occur”.

Friedman also acknowledges that the Forest Service has been “critically hampered by process”. He argues that:

If we want our forest ecosystems restored, we must now disabuse the Forest Service of the inefficiencies we helped impose. We must rescue the Forest Service by becoming its friend, its ally and its core constituency…. We have at hand an opportunity… to build a new conservation movement and a new Forest Service to advance a new central idea of restoration.

Only time will tell how well Friedman’s challenge will be taken up by other national forest stakeholders. It still remains to be seen whether Chief McGuire’s “grand experiment” wherein diverse interests consent to “share the land” is a viable approach for multipurpose public land in an era of representative democracy characterized by diverse and fiercely competing special interest groups.

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