History of National Forest Conflicts

The current impasse over national forest management is an outgrowth of a century of federal resource policy. The social, cultural, economic, and political context in which the national forests operate has shifted dramatically since the Forest Service was established in 1905. This appendix briefly outlines those shifts and their implications.

Evolution of Federal Land Management

During most of the 19th century, it was national policy to transfer federal (public domain) lands to private use and ownership. During this period, more than one billion acres, or over half the land area of the U.S., was transferred from federal to non-federal ownership. An important element of the conservation policy framework that emerged after 1890 was to retain, rather than dispose of, most of the remaining federal estate. This occurred even though a significant proportion of many western states remained in federal ownership.

Custodial Management

The period from 1900 to World War II was in large measure one of consolidation and custodial management for most federal land managing agencies. From 1896 to 1910 the area of forest reserves (national forests) rose from 18 to 168 million acres.

Livestock grazing was the primary commercial use of National Forest System lands before World War II. A major focus for forest managers was to reduce livestock numbers to the carrying capacity of the land. Other than grazing, forest management was generally custodial or focused on meeting primarily local demands for house logs, fence posts and rails, firewood, and similar resources.

Another important Forest Service focus was to reduce the large area of uncontrolled wildfire that was common prior to the 1930s. Curtailing the 20 to 50 million acres that consistently burned annually across the U.S., mostly on private lands, was considered a prerequisite to the long-term management of public and private forests and grasslands.

The catastrophic 1910 Idaho/Montana fires in which almost eighty Forest Service firefighters perished was a traumatic event in the formative years of the agency. This event set the tone for an aggressive fire control effort. Wildfire prevention and suppression became the focus of highly successful cooperative efforts among federal agencies and state and private landowners.

The work programs of the Great Depression were a stimulus to the planting of trees and the construction of campgrounds, buildings, and other facilities on national forests, national parks, and range lands, as well as installation of erosion control projects and fire suppression. While authorized in 1911 by the Weeks Act, acquisition of national forest land in the eastern U.S. expanded greatly during the Depression years. By 1945, when land acquisition substantially slowed, over 20 million acres of depleted farmsteads and cutover and burned-over woodlands had been incorporated into the eastern national forests.

Increased Demands after World War II

The period after World War II ushered in a substantial expansion in the demands placed on federal lands for a variety of products and uses. After the war, as millions of service men and women returned home and started families, demand for timber for housing rose dramatically. The nation increasingly looked to the national forests and BLM lands in the West to meet that demand. Road access to national forests and BLM lands had improved by the late 1940s and many of the more accessible private lands had been logged to provide timber for the war effort.

National forest and BLM timber sale levels increased from 2 to 4 billion board feet in the late 1940s to 11 to 14 billion board feet in the 1960s and beyond. By the 1960s, federal forests were meeting almost 20 percent of the nation's total consumption of wood volume, and over 28 percent of its consumption of softwood sawtimber, the primary source of lumber and plywood for housing.

This substantial increase in federal timber harvest not only served to meet a critical national need for timber, it also had the effect of taking pressure off of private forest lands, many of which had been heavily impacted to meet the war effort.

The 1950s also witnessed a substantial increase in demand for other uses, outputs, and values from the federal lands. An increasingly mobile and affluent population began to look to these lands for outdoor recreation. National forest recreation visitation increased from about 5 million in the early 1920s to 18 million in 1946, 93 million in 1960, and 233 million in 1975. National park visitation increased from 50 million in 1950 to 72 million by 1960, and BLM visitation went from a few million just after WW II to 50 million by 1980. Visitation at state, county, and municipal parks rose even more rapidly than that on federal lands.

The increased demands on the federal lands began to be reflected legislatively in the 1960s. The Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 provided that national forests be managed for a variety of uses and values, including outdoor recreation, wildlife, timber, rangeland grazing, and watershed protection. This law largely reflected the uses and management already occurring on these lands.

In 1968, both the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act were passed. These acts created separate systems within which rivers and trails with outstanding scenic, recreational, geologic, cultural, historic, or other values could be designated into national systems. A Land and Water Conservation Fund was established, financed by oil revenues, to help finance the purchase of land in nationally designated areas. The 1960s were also a time of growing public controversy over timber harvesting practices on the federal lands. Clearcutting became a particularly controversial practice, with the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana and the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, receiving national attention over the issue.

A growing segment of the public began seeking statutory protection for maintaining federal lands in their "natural" condition. The Wilderness Act, which passed in 1964 after much debate, provided for the designation of significant areas of federal land in their natural and "untrammeled" condition. Most commodity uses were prohibited from these areas. In 1975, legislation was passed to allow designating wilderness in the East.

In 1974, the Forest and Rangelands Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA) required the Forest Service to periodically assess the national long-term demand and supply situation for all renewable resources, and to plan how agency programs would address projected resource demands and needs. In 1976, the National Forest Management Act provided detailed guidelines for the management of national forest lands and for the participation of the public in national forest decision-making.

The Environmentalists--A New Agenda

The growing environmental awareness of the 1960s, which had found focus initially on the federal lands, expanded greatly into a general concern over the deterioration of air and water quality and a perceived lack of attention to the environmental and health effects of industrialization. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring galvanized public concern over pesticide use. Earth Day 1970 was successful in raising public awareness of environmental issues generally.

Congress responded to these concerns by passing a variety of laws, including the Clean Air Act of 1970; the Clean Water Act of 1972; the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA); amendments to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act; the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976; laws aimed at protecting wetlands; and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, to name a few.

One primary focus of the 1970s environmental legislation was to reduce the human health effects of air and water pollution and the use of agricultural pesticides. Another focus was on reforming the way federal agencies make decisions affecting the environment. NEPA required federal agencies proposing actions that could have a significant effect on the environment to evaluate a range of alternatives and come to a reasoned choice after providing for public input. Although only a procedural law, perhaps no single environmental law has had so profound an impact on federal decision-making as NEPA.

The Endangered Species Act was one of the only laws passed in the 1970s that included a statutory goal for protecting species in jeopardy. It became a powerful tool that mandated that primacy in federal decision making be given to endangered species protection, and, by extension, to biodiversity. More than any other law, the ESA is the genesis of the move to ecosystem management. Protection of species with large home ranges virtually mandates an ecosystem approach involving assessments at the scale of multi-ownerships and jurisdictions.

The ESA and the other environmental legislation of the 1970s had a profound influence on the use and management of both federal and non-federal lands.

The 1960s-70s environmental movement had other, more subtle effects, as well. One of them was to interest young urban people in conservation and natural resources careers. The "Earth Day graduates" have now moved into influential positions in most federal and state land agencies. Another major shift since the 1960s has been a movement of urban people to many rural areas adjacent to national forests. These people have significantly changed the preferences expressed by local people in how these lands should be managed.

Forest Service Response

Although the focus of much of the environmental legislation in the 1970s was on cleaning up pollution, reducing the risk of pesticides, and similar human health concerns, the response and focus on the national forests was decidedly different. That response can be divided into two separate, but interrelated categories:
  1. Concerns over land management practices, especially clearcutting; and
  2. Statutory and administrative allocation of land to special designations to protect natural values, recreation, and other uses, and limit or prohibit commodity production.

Concerns over Land Management

The use of clearcutting as a forest management tool increased dramatically on the national forests after World War II. Much of the public concern over national forest land management practices was focused on the visual and ecological effects of clearcutting, and to a lesser degree, on the conversion of hardwood forest types to pine plantations in the southeastern U.S.

Concerns over clearcutting found particular focus on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, the high elevation national forests in Wyoming, and the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. These controversies led to Congress recommending guidelines for the application of clearcutting on federal lands, and eventually to the passage of the National Forest Management Act of 1976, which provided detailed direction and guidelines for the conduct of national forest planning and timber management practices.

Land Preservation

A second major thrust of public action was the designation of significant areas of national forest land as statutory wilderness and similar statutory categories that emphasize protection of natural values, recreation, and other uses, and which limit or prohibit commodity production. Beginning with the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, this effort gained momentum in the 1970s with the first and second Roadless Area Review and Evaluation programs (RARE I and RARE II), as well as passage of legislation providing for designation of National Recreation Areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and similar special areas. By the mid-1980s Congress had passed omnibus state-wide wilderness acts for most states containing national forest lands.

Did the Agency Miss Cultural Changes?

In the period prior to the 1970s, the Forest Service was often held up as an agency known for high morale, a strong sense of purpose, and administrative excellence. In The Forest Ranger, Herman Kaufman attributed the Forest Service's sense of purpose to shared values and a common culture. At that time, most Forest Service professional employees were white males with rural American values who went to forestry schools which taught curricula that reinforced those values. The agency had a highly decentralized decision structure, yet a remarkably consistent approach to solving problems and viewing the world.

But beginning in the 1970s, things started to unravel. Those institutional characteristics that succeeded when national forests demands were relatively modest and largely rural-based failed to deal with increasing demands from a more diverse, urban-based public. Located in rural areas, many Forest Service people failed to read or understand signals coming from urban areas. In addition, some of those urban demands were perceived to be in conflict with rural economies based on commodity use.

Another major factor contributing to the status quo was the Congressional budgeting process, which encouraged and directed the agency to maintain high levels of commodity outputs.

Since 1970, the Forest Service work force and many rural communities have become much more diverse. In many cases, there exists little shared vision, either internally or externally, as to how national forests should be managed.

Merging of Practices & Preservation Debates

The 1980s saw a merging of focus and linkage between national forest land management practices and wilderness designation brought about by so-called "statutory release" language in omnibus state-wide wilderness acts. This language prevented the Forest Service from considering any more additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System in the first round of land management planning under the National Forest Management Act, but required such consideration when forest plans would be revised in ten to fifteen years.

This dramatically shifted the focus of many environmental groups from wilderness designation per se to seeking to protect as much undeveloped and unroaded land as possible for future wilderness designation. In addition, these groups became more knowledgeable and concerned about ecological values beyond undeveloped lands, particularly wildlife and fisheries.

Issues emerging strongly in the 1980s that reflected this changed focus included concerns that the Forest Service was selling timber in some areas below its cost of production and the old-growth/northern spotted owl issue in the Pacific Northwest. These issues initially acted as wilderness "proxies" for protecting the inventory of undeveloped and roadless areas. But they have since become important public policy issues in their own right and many environmental advocates no longer focus primarily on roadless areas.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were also the focus of increasing administrative and appeals and lawsuits charging that the Forest Service was violating the National Forest Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other environmental laws. Such legal challenges became common and were successful often enough to substantially reduce national forest timber and other commodity program outputs.

Current Forest Land Status

Today, 42.8 million acres, or 23 percent of the 191 million-acre National Forest System is statutorily set-aside in various Congressional designations. These include the 34.6-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System, 3.4 million acres of national monuments, 2.7 million acres of national recreation areas, 1.2 million acres of national game refuges and wildlife preserves, and 0.9 million acres of wild and scenic rivers, scenic, and primitive areas.

In addition to statutory set-asides, large areas of national forest and other federal lands have been made administratively off-limits to commodity production. Since 1985, the area of national forest lands available for planned timber harvest has dropped from about 72 to 49 million acres. Current forest plans provide for timber harvesting as one of the resource objectives on about 26 percent of the total area, 35 percent of forested land, and 48 percent of productive forest land in the national forests.

Reduction of land available for timber production has been particularly significant on the Pacific Coast. Of 24.5 million acres of federal lands within the range of the northern spotted owl, the Pacific Northwest Forest Plan provides that only 15 percent, or 3.7 million acres, is available for timber production as one of the possible uses. National forest lands comprise 19.4 million acres, or 79 percent, of all federal lands in the plan, while most of the rest are BLM lands.

Shifts in Timber Sales and Practices

The level of national forest timber sales has declined even more dramatically than available land base, dropping by 70 percent from an average of 10 to 12 billion board feet during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, to 3 to 4 billion board feet today. National forest timber sales in the Pacific Coast states of Oregon, Washington, and California which have been affected by the spotted owl issue have seen the most dramatic declines, dropping by 89 percent between 1987 and 1995, from 6.86 to 0.78 billion board feet. National forest timber sales in other states declined by 53 percent, from 4.46 to 2.10 billion board feed, during the same period.

Between 1989 and 1995, the area of national forest lands on which timber harvesting occurs annually declined by 44 percent, from 838,000 to 473,000 acres. Timber harvesting now occurs annually on less than one percent of the area identified as suitable for timber production in existing national forest plans.

Between 1988 and 1996, the area harvested by clearcutting dropped by 80 percent, from 283,000 to 57,000 acres. As a percentage of the total area cut, clearcutting declined by over two thirds, from 39 to 12 percent.

In addition to the reduced use of clearcutting, the proportion of small sized and salvage timber has increased substantially. Between 1990 and 1996, sawlog-sized material dropped from 77 to 56 percent of total national forest harvest volume and salvage increased from 26 to 47 percent.

Effects of Shifting Outputs

Ecosystem management has focused considerable attention on ecological scale issues--the idea that natural systems are linked a various scales that must be understood to manage intelligently. Somewhat paradoxically, ecosystem management has tended to ignore the fact that economic and social systems are also linked at various scales, many of which have significant environmental implications.

Resources that are produced (or not produced) in one ecosystem indirectly affect what occurs in other ecosystems, perhaps thousands of miles away. One illustrative example is the off-site ecological effects caused by the strategy to protect late-successional forest habitats on federal lands in the West.

The sharp reductions in federal timber sales, from over 5 billion board feet in 1987 to less than 500 million board feet in 1994, did not eliminate the ecological effects of timber harvesting. It transferred those effects in varying degrees to forested ecosystems somewhere else. Price increases led to improved utilization by industry, greater recycling, and consumer conservation. But these did not entirely mitigate the increased cutting of forests in other countries less able or less willing to maintain environmental safeguards. Since 1991, softwood lumber imports from Canada have increased from 27 to 36 percent of U.S. softwood lumber consumption.

Harvesting on private lands in the southern U.S. also increased after the reduction of federal timber in the West. Today, the harvest of softwood timber in the South exceeds the rate of growth for the first time in at least 50 years. Pressure on private forests in the U.S. will be further exacerbated by a U.S.-Canada trade agreement that will reduce U.S. imports of Canadian softwood lumber to near historic levels.

These human dimension linkages, and their associated environmental and economic effects, have not been fully considered in decisions on the use and management of federal lands. The appropriate scales for such analyses is at the regional and national levels. Regional assessments (such as the Columbia River Basin Assessment) and national assessments (such as RPA), should, as a normal matter, carry out such evaluations.

Forest Health Issues

How federal land managers deal with the growing forest health problems in the West will be a litmus test for how national forests will be managed in the future. In many western forest ecosystems, per-acre biomass has risen substantially since the 1940s. Today many more forests have dense, fire-prone understories than those that existed in the past. Since 1952, national forest biomass in the Interior West has increased by more than 44 percent.

This buildup is the legacy of active wildfire control efforts, the harvest of large, fire-resistant tree species, and the conversion of forest types. Biomass buildups have occurred largely in smaller diameter trees. Between 1952 and 1992, the volume in trees less than 17 inches in diameter increased by 52 percent while the volume in trees over 29 inches decreased by 31 percent. Today trees smaller than 17 inches comprise two-thirds of total stand volume on all lands in the Interior West.

These changes occurred in the face of--and partly because of--timber harvesting in interior western forests that averaged more than 2 billion board feet annually between 1960 and 1990. Today timber harvest levels are substantially reduced and forest biomass continues to increase.

Watersheds degraded by logging roads and other activities are another significant forest health problem. Native trout and anadromous fisheries have often declined due to habitat loss. In some respects, roadless and undeveloped areas are the healthiest ecosystems.

If current trends continue, there will be:

  1. Increasing risks to federal and non-federal ecosystems from insects, disease, and conflagration events;
  2. A rising toll of loss and degradation of watershed values and wildlife habitats from abnormally intense wildfires, as well as continued losses in the biological diversity of vegetation types that were historically characterized by frequent, low intensity fires;
  3. Increased risks to the human communities in forested areas and to the fire fighters sent in to protect them; and
  4. Significant and increasing losses to taxpayers in fire suppression costs and resource values.
This situation provides a clear test for ecosystem management principles.

Is Biodiversity the Current Objective?

Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas has written that the net effect of the administrative and legal challenges to national forest plans has been to make protection of biodiversity the de facto overriding goal of the national forests:
It has become increasingly obvious that the overrriding de facto policy for the management of federal lands is the protection of biodiversity. That de facto policy has simply evolved through the interaction of laws, regulations, court cases, and expedient administrative direction. This de facto policy, I believe, is the very crux of the raging debate over the levels of commodity production that can be expected from federal lands. Such a dramatically important policy should be examined closely by the American people and the Congress. If that is the policy, it should be clearly stated and the consequences accepted. If such is not the national policy, that should be stated. In recognition of this crux of the issue of federal land management, and in a clear declaration of policy regarding preservation of biodiversity, lies one key to the (community) "stability" debate.

Performance Criteria

Even if a shared vision can be constructed for the national forests, a lack of identified performance criteria under ecosystem management and a publicly agreed-upon national strategy to protect biodiversity will be major barriers to effective management of national forest lands.

The Forest Service needs performance criteria to assess trends in environmental conditions and to better understand the biological and social implications of alternative approaches to sustaining ecosystems at various scales. It is true that ecosystem management is new, forest ecosystems are complex, and much remains to be known about them. Long-term management still requires performance criteria.

Unfortunately, no federal agency has defined performance criteria for ecosystem management.

Ecosystem management is a management strategy, a means to achieve multiple goals, such as biological diversity, ecosystem and resource sustainability, ecosystem integrity, social responsiveness, and risk minimization. These goals must be made explicit and quantifiable objectives established for each of them to measure progress in their achievement. Organizational accomplishments should be organized and presented in terms of these goals and objectives.

If ecosystem management is to persist, it must not be an abstract experiment with little or no practical bearing. It is a way of organizing and using resources to address problems and seize opportunities in achieving organizational goals as well as implementing federal statutes. Hence, progress in implementation must be ascertained. Accomplishments in terms of performance criteria associated with identified goals and related objectives must be systematically evaluated.

Emerging issues related to sustainable forest management have focused on the development of criteria and indicators for determining whether forests are being managed sustainably. The 12 countries of the "Montreal Process," which include over 90 percent of the world's temperate and boreal forests (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, United States, and Uruguay), have agreed to seven criteria for sustainable forest management. These are:

  1. Conservation of biological diversity;
  2. Maintenance of the productive capacity of ecosystems;
  3. Maintenance of forest ecosystem health and vitality;
  4. Conservation and maintenance of soil & water resources;
  5. Maintenance of forest contribution to global carbon cycles;
  6. Maintenance and enhancement of long-term socio-economic benefits to meet the needs of societies; and
  7. Legal, institutional and economic framework for forest conservation and sustainable management.
In addition, 67 indicators have been developed to measure performance under the criteria. The Montreal Process countries just completed a First Approximation Report on the ability of the various countries to report on the Montreal Process criteria.

Chief Dombeck recently decided to evaluate these criteria and indicators for measuring Forest Service performance under ecosystem management. This is a solid beginning toward the identification and use of new performance criteria.

A National Biodiversity Strategy

If, as Jack Ward Thomas suggests, protection of biodiversity has become a national priority for national forest lands, a national strategy to achieve it should be developed. As of now, no such strategy exists, partly because there is no consensus about just what "biodiversity" really is.

In 1992, several international organizations proposed a "Global Diversity Strategy." This included:

This strategy has much in common with some of those proposed by what might be called the new environmental agenda. Under this approach, conservation of biological diversity on large, multi-ownership landscapes would involve a system of preserves or protected areas, often linked by connecting habitat corridors, and surrounded by limited use buffers, with more intensively managed areas beyond.

This concept may be sound, but it leaves many unresolved issues, including:

A biodiversity strategy faces a variety of other difficulties, including: Conservation networks could provide a promising basis for the long-term protection of biodiversity in an American landscape subject to increasing human modification. Such networks could potentially be used, among other things, to: Since two-thirds of U.S. land is privately held, even if conservation networks are established on federal lands, success in managing for biodiversity will depend on creating effective cooperative, non-regulatory approaches, including tax and other institutional incentives for private landowners to manage their lands to achieve desired objectives.

Political Realities

Debates over forest health and conservation biology illustrate the problems with current national forest management. Both terms are more political than they are scientific. Environmentalists perceive "forest health" to be a euphemism for timber cutting, while commodity interests fear that "conservation biology" contains a hidden preservation agenda.

Both views may be partly accurate, but that does not mean there are no forest health or biodiversity problems. Taking politics out of scientific decisions will require more than just better science. These political problems are a predictable result of the Forest Service's governing and budgeting structures. Scientifically credible national forest management will happen only when those structures are changed.


  1. Demands on national forest lands have changed dramatically over the years. Custodial management before World War II gave way to increased emphasis on commodity production after 1950. By the 1960s increasing demands for recreation and amenity values set the stage for major conflicts over the future management of these lands.
  2. In recent years national forest commodity production and uses have been substantially reduced and emphasis on non-commodity uses and values, especially biological diversity, has greatly expanded.
  3. Due to continuing biomass buildups on NFS lands and the the poor condition of many forested watersheds, forest health and wildlife issues are likely to be the focus of continued future public debate.
  4. "Earth Day graduates" have greatly diversified the Forest Service's workforce.
  5. Rural communities increasingly reflect urban values.
  6. New individual and agency incentives must reflect evolving social priorities.
  7. Solutions to resource problems are going to increasingly require collaborative approaches.
  8. Sorely lacking today are generally accepted performance measures for national forest management and a national biodiversity strategy.

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