The Forest Service Needs a Clear Mandate

by James E. Brown, Oregon State Forester

The National Association of State Foresters recognizes the significant role the Forest Service has played in forestry in the U.S., and hopes that the agency can continue in that leadership capacity. However, members of Congress want to know whether the states can manage the lands currently entrusted to the Forest Service, and whether doing so would make sense from a financial, as well as forestry, perspective.

The answer, in a nutshell, is that the states could likely assume title to federal forests, and do as good a job for less money, provided state agencies were not encumbered by the overlapping, and, in many cases, conflicting mandates placed upon the Forest Service by current federal law. Although our remarks here mainly deal with the Forest Service, they apply with little modification to lands managed by the BLM as well.

The National Association of State Foresters (NASF) represents the directors of the state forestry agencies from all 50 States and five U.S territories, as well as the District of Columbia. The primary responsibilities of the state foresters is to encourage stewardship management and provide for the protection of more than two thirds of the Nation's forests.

As a national organization, NASF works to build partnerships with federal agencies, natural resource management organizations, and other national organizations to create consensus on forest resource use. Through public/private partnerships, NASF seeks to bring forest land under proper sustained management to ensure healthy forest ecosystems that provide natural resources and sustainable economies.

NASF recently surveyed several states that manage sizable forest resources to gain a sense of how best to resolve federal land management issues. Ten states responded to the survey.

Most state foresters view federal land managers as capable resource professionals. Unfortunately, they have lost their way in a maze of federal laws. The President's Northwest Forest Plan and other ecosystem-based efforts have attempted to find their way through the maze, but commodity outputs and other values have suffered in the process.

Different interest groups have used the legal system, as well as the extensive administrative appeals process, to push planned outcomes in their favored direction--not necessarily with an eye towards the public interest. As a result, very little active forest management is being accomplished.

Generally, the members of NASFs Federal Lands Committee, as well as the states surveyed, are frustrated at the pace and outcomes of federal forest land management. In our view, there are two principle avenues to resolve these problems:

  1. Clarify the purpose of federal land management by amending the organic acts of the federal land managing agencies, and then harmonize these statutes with other pertinent laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act; or

  2. Transfer the lands to the states without the encumbrance of current federal planning laws. These transfers would take place only to individual states that request the opportunity to take over the federal lands.

If Congress decides to retain federal ownership of these lands, then:

  1. Organic acts and other pertinent laws (i.e., NEPA, ESA, CWA, etc.) should be harmonized to provide a clear mandate to the managing agencies.

  2. The federal land planning processes (those required by NFMA, FLPMA, and others) should be streamlined. The proposed revisions to the Forest Service's planning rules provide a good start, but do not go far enough. Efforts to improve the process should continue.

    Of particular concern to state land managers is the compatibility of federal land management plans with state land management planning efforts. Federal land management plans should fit within the context of state plans. To accomplish this, federal land managers should actively involve and invite the participation of state and local governments and other stakeholders. With the recently passed revisions, the Federal Advisory Committee Act should not constrain this involvement. Likewise, federal land managers should actively participate in the development of state plans.

    The key words here are "involve" and "participation" which go beyond the commonly used phrase "coordinate with" in terms of input to and ownership of plans. Coordination has often been the federal standard in relationships with state and local government. This relationship needs to move to the next level to make federal land management more relevant and connected to state issues and needs.

  3. Combining the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management into a single federal land management agency makes sense. Although the agencies have unique histories, organizational cultures, and missions which would make combining them difficult and contentious (both within and outside the agencies themselves), a merger should be considered as a long-term goal. A more practical short-term goal would be to initiate aggressive major land transfers and exchanges between the two agencies and with the states.

  4. The Forest Service should explore opportunities to contract for services with States, local governments, and private enterprises where it will reduce administrative and land management costs.
If Congress determines it is in the public interest to transfer federal lands to the states, then:
  1. States generally would welcome the opportunity to own and manage these lands under state statutes and without the encumbrances of federal laws.

  2. Congress should establish a process whereby states could submit a plan for the transfer of federal lands to the states. This should include criteria on lands eligible for transfer. If individual states decide to petition Congress to take over the federal lands, and if the criteria established by Congress are met, the transfer would occur by law. The criteria for transfer should allow the states to sell or exchange isolated parcels to facilitate overall management, and should allow the states to retain revenues from the lands to pay for management expenses. As part of the transfer proposal, states should identify lands to remain in federal ownership.

  3. States believe their current land management practices will provide for the same array of goods, values, and services provided by federal lands. The key difference is that state land managers are actually able to manage their lands. Many states are already managing their forests under an ecosystem management concept, employing it in such a way as to provide needed jobs and commodities while still protecting ecosystems.
The Forest Service and the state foresters have a long relationship that includes many successes, particularly in the areas of forest fire control and pest management. The National Association of State Foresters believes that the Forest Service has played an important role in the history of American forestry, and, with proper and clear guidance from the Congress, that it could continue to be a leader in forestry and land management. If Congress decides to pursue large scale transfer of Federal lands to the States, it should keep in mind that doing so will not improve the management of these lands if the current, conflicting, and complicated structure of Federal laws is kept intact.

James Brown ( is the Oregon State Forester and chairs the Federal Lands Committee of the National Association of State Foresters. This paper is based on testimony he gave before the Forests and Public Land Management Subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

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