Born in 1905, the Forest Service was once regarded as a model of excellence in
government. In 1952, for example, Newsweek magazine described the agency
as "one of Uncle Sam's soundest and most businesslike investments."
Today, Forest Service management of the national forests is besieged by
conflict from without and beset by uncertainty from within. Even as it
approaches its centennial, the agency's very survival seems in doubt.
Public debate over national forest management is both appropriate and useful.
Yet the current conflicts have escalated, in some cases, to the point of
violence, while agency morale has dropped precipitously. In the long run, such
polarization is bad for the national forests, bad for the communities and
forest users who depend on them, and bad for the wildlife and natural
ecosystems that are found within them.
To find ways to help the Forest Service survive and thrive into its second
century, several groups of people drawn from the environmental community, the
timber industry, other user groups, and the agency itself began meeting and
corresponding in 1997. This is the final report and recommendations of one of
those groups, which calls itself the "Forest Options Group."
Debates about the Forest Service's "mission" and on-the-ground management
practices have been endless and unresolvable. The Forest Options Group started
with a different question: "If we were the Forest Service's first leaders in
1905, but knowing what we know today, how would we design the Forest Service?"
In response to this question, discussion focused on governing structures
and the budgetary process. Governing structures include the ways
that local forest managers get their annual and month-to-month guidance and
direction. The budget provides the means for managers to fund their
The Forest Options Group agreed that current governing and budgeting systems
are the source of many of the core problems with the Forest Service. Top-down
governance structures promote polarization and discourage people from working
with the agency at the local level because of the risk that a higher level
would overturn their decisions. The budgetary process encourages people to view
both the national forests and federal funds as a commons, available mainly to
those who stake their claims.
In reviewing forest budgets, the group agreed that several alternatives to the
current process were available:
The Forest Options Group also agreed that a number of alternative governance
structures were worth examining:
- Open bucket appropriations would fund forests out of tax
dollars but allow local managers, not Congress or higher levels in the agency,
to set priorities and determine where funds would be spent.
- Gross receipts would allow forests to charge more user fees and fund
the forests out of those fees rather than out of appropriations from tax
- Net receipts would also allow more user fees but would let managers
keep only the net receipts, thus discouraging the cross-subsidizing of
unprofitable activities with profitable ones.
- Special funds, perhaps derived from receipts, could be used to
promote the non-market stewardship activities, such as watershed
rehabilitation, ecosystem protection, forest health and restoration, or other
All of these alternatives seemed superior to the current system in at least
some respects. But the group agreed that much more information was needed to
determine which combination would work best on the National Forest System. To
gain that information, the group proposes to test a number of pilot projects
for at least five years.
All of the Forest Options Group's proposed pilot projects have the following
- A forest trust, similar to state land trusts, would make a trustee
responsible for producing revenues for a beneficiary and for preserving the
corpus of the trust.
- A board of directors could be appointed by the secretary of
agriculture or elected by national forest permit holders, including anyone
willing to buy an annual use permit.
- A collaborative board made up of representatives of a broad array of
interest groups could be appointed en bloc by the secretary of
- A forest could be managed by a private or non-profit group.
As summarized in the table below, the Forest Options Group developed five
- All pilot forests will nominally report to an Office of Pilot Projects
rather than to the regional office of the geographic region in which they are
- All will have open-bucket budgeting;
- All are relieved from following the Forest Service Manual, Handbook, or
- All except pilot 2 may charge user fees subject to valid existing rights;
- All except pilot 2 have a safety net equal to half their historic budget.
- Entrepreneurial Budgeting: The forest is funded out of its net
receipts. Forest managers set user fees with no other changes in governance.
Twenty percent of gross receipts go into a special fund dedicated to nonmarket
- Collaborative Governance: A collaborative board oversees the
operations of the forest, approving the annual budget and operating plan. Other
than open-bucket budgeting, the budget process is unchanged.
- Collaborative Planning: A collaborative board writes the forest
plan. When the plan is done, the forest will be funded out of three-quarters of
its gross receipts, with any excess of the forest's share of gross receipts
over the historic budget to be dedicated to facilities maintenance and
- Forest Trust: The forest is made into a legal trust with a board of
trustees appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture and state governor. The
trustees are obligated to preserve the corpus of the trust and to produce
revenue for the beneficiaries, which include local counties and a nonmarket
stewardship fund to be managed by an outside entity. The forest itself is
funded out of half of its gross receipts.
- Gross Receipts/Rate Board: The forest is funded out of three-fourths
of its gross receipts. A rate board sets forest user fees to insure against
monopolistic pricing and take equity considerations into account.
The Forest Options Group recommends that at least one test be made of each of
these pilots. But other ideas or combinations of ideas may be worth testing as
well. The pilot advisory committee could accept other pilot proposals from
forests while insuring that a full range of pilots is tested.
Summary Table of Pilot Characteristics
Governing Status Open Gross Net
Characteristics Quo Bucket Receipts Receipts
Status Quo Control 5 (75%) 1
Collaborative board 2, 3* 3* (75%)
Trust with appointed board 4 (50%)
Trust with collab. board
Trust with elected board
Explanation of terms: Status quo means same as other national forests;
open bucket appropriations means appropriations of funds that are not
dedicated to particular line items; gross receipts means the forest is
funded by a percentage of gross income from a full range of user fees; net
receipts means the forest is funded by a percentage of receipts minus
costs. In pilot 5, some fees are set by a rate board. In pilots 1, 3,
and 4 selected receipts are dedicated to certain tasks such as stewardship
activities. In pilots 1, 4, and 5, appropriations are phased out over
several years and future budgets are protected by a safety net equal to
half of historic budgets. No pilots proposed by the Forest Options Group
combined a trust with a collaborative or elected board, but some forests may
want to propose these or other combinations for their pilot tests.
* Pilot 3 is funded out of appropriations until its forest plan is completed,
then it is funded out of gross receipts.
These pilots can be tested with a minimum of new legislation, described in
detail in the full report. After passage of this legislation, the secretary of
agriculture should appoint an advisory committee to help select and monitor the
pilots. The committee would ask forests or potential collaborative boards to
"bid" on the opportunity to become pilots. Once begun, the supervisors of pilot
forests would prepare annual reports specifying how the pilots are working,
what obstacles they face in implementing them, and how they could be improved.
All of these pilots should lead to significant improvements in land stewardship
and public satisfaction with the forests, while reducing taxpayer burdens. Yet
five years may not be long enough to determine which structure or combination
of structures works best. The Forest Options Group recommends that forests be
given options to renew the pilots for five more years. Eventually, however, the
group expects that some combination of these pilots will form the nucleus for
reform of the entire National Forest System.
Electronic Drummer | Reports | Second Century