State Forest Agencies

Table of Contents

The Average State Forest Agency

The average state forest agency manages just over 1.1 million acres of forest land and sells $6 million worth of timber each year. Unlike the park agencies, whose duties virtually end at park boundaries, and the fish & wildlife agencies, who deal with a discrete if mobile resource, state forest agencies have major duties beyond management of state-owned resources.

The most important of these duties is fire protection. Half the states own fewer than 300,000 acres of forest land, but nearly all of the states have significant forest fire protection responsibilities. More than half of forest agency budgets are dedicated to fire, while just 10 percent goes for state lands. In some cases, fire protection activities are mostly paid by private landowners; in others it is mostly paid out of state general funds. But in nearly all cases the state plays a role at least in oversight, more often in actual fire prevention and suppression activities.

Most forest agencies also have extension duties, helping small private land owners with their forests. The majority of forests in this country are privately owned in small parcels, but these contribute a minority of timber to the economy. Extension work is supposed to help those private owners who want to manage for timber do so most effectively.

Another important duty taken on by fourteen state forest programs is the administration of rules for forest practice on all forest lands, including private lands. These rules are usually set by a forestry board or commission and cover such things as reforestation, logging methods, road construction, and other activities that may affect water quality, wildlife, or forest management.

Other significant activities include operating seedling nurseries, coordinating insect & disease protection, and urban forestry. Some state forest agencies, such as Maryland, Michigan, New York, and Washington, also have multi-million dollar recreation programs, including campgrounds and hiking trails.

These additional duties muddy fiscal comparisons. Pennsylvania, for example, doesn't report the costs of managing its state forests separately from its fire protection costs. Other states that do report state forest costs probably don't include much of the overhead attributable to managing the state forests.

When all of these duties are accounted for, the average forest agency has a budget of about $22 million per year. But averages are less meaningful for forests than for parks or fish & wildlife. California's forestry budget, for example, is five times that of the next largest state; excluding California, the average state forest budget is less than $15 million.

Averages can also be misleading when applied to state forests. Although the average state owns a million acres, one state--Alaska--owns well over a third of the total, and more than half the states own 300,000 acres or less. When Alaska's 21.5 million acres are excluded, the average state owns just over 725,000 acres.

Although the average state earns $6 million per year from its forests, four states--Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Pennsylvania--produce more than three-quarters of all the receipts. While differences also exist between the states among their park and fish & wildlife programs, they are not nearly as great as between state forest programs.

History of State Forestry

State forestry was born of two parents: fire, which was a nationwide concern; and state trust lands, which were mainly a western concern. State trust lands are described in detail in the article on page 36, so this article will focus on fire and other issues.

Until around the turn of the century, most states ignored forest fires. Forests were remote, abundant--too abundant for many farmers--and quite possibly beyond the available technology to protect. States may have also believed that fires were strictly a local concern.

The state of Wisconsin took no action when the 1871 Peshtigo fire killed nearly 1,500 people and burned one-and-a-quarter million acres. It took no action in 1887 when the town of Marshfield, Wisconsin, burnt to the ground in a forest fire. But in 1894, a 100,000-acre fire burned the town of Phillips and killed more than a dozen people. This led the state to create a state forestry warden, regulate burning, and direct the railroads to clear burnable brush from along their rights of way.

This pattern was repeated in many other states, many of which had no forest fire policies until devastating fires led to demands that legislatures act. For example, many western states passed legislation requiring private landowners to suppress fires on their property only after the 1910 fires that burned much of Idaho and nearby states. Generally, landowners responded by forming fire protection associations funded by per-acre assessments. Many of these associations eventually went bankrupt fighting major fires and their jobs were taken over by the states.

The state agencies formed to prevent and suppress fires became the nucleus of the agencies that later dealt with forest practices, extension, and management of state lands. Regulation of forest practices was long a goal of the U.S. Forest Service, which convinced Congress to give it authority over all private lands early in the New Deal. When this law was ruled unconstitutional, a few states began to consider local regulation.

Oregon was among the first to pass such laws, requiring forest owners to leave seed trees or take other steps to insure reforestation starting in 1941. In 1971, the state gave its board of forestry broad authority to regulate timber cutting and related activities such as road construction and reforestation. Washington, California, and eleven other states quickly passed similar laws.

While most state forests are owned by the trust land states described in the article on page 44, an important exception is Pennsylvania. This was Gifford Pinchot's home state, which he ruled as governor for two terms after leaving the Forest Service. Naturally, forestry was as important to him on a state level as on the national level, so it should be no surprise that Pennsylvania owns far more acres than any other eastern state other than New York. Pennsylvania's timber is also far more valuable than most, earning, for example, three times that of New York.

Present Day Funding of State Forest Agencies

States fund fire protection, forest practices, and similar activities relating to private lands out of a combination of general funds and landowner assessments. State forest lands, the primary focus of this study, are also often funded out of general funds. However, most states take care to insure that receipts exceed the expenses of managing state forests.

Several states achieve this objective by funding state forests out of a fixed percentage of gross receipts. At least one state--Minnesota--funds forest management out of one-third of net timber sale receipts. This should give state forest managers an extra incentive to maximize net income rather than just gross income.

But many other states simply appropriate funds to state forestry with the expectation that receipts will exceed the costs. Since the receipts from state trust lands go to schools or other beneficiaries, state taxpayers even if receipts are greater than costs. The legislatures evidently feel that $1 million spent on state forests that produce $2 million in revenue for schools is a better investment than simply giving $1 million to the schools.

At least sixteen states lost money on their state forestry programs in 1993, including Alaska, Missouri, Mississippi, Hawaii, and Minnesota. Alaska's losses were the largest, at $2.7 million, followed by Missouri, at $2.3 million. Agencies in these states have surplus funds in the form of oil revenues in Alaska and a dedicated sales tax in Missouri, and such funds give managers little incentive to insure that they make a profit.

Minnesota loses money despite being funded out of net timber receipts because the state's definition of "net" excludes many costs. For example, road construction costs are paid by a share of gasoline taxes, and these costs aren't counted in the calculation of net income.

The vast majority of forest revenues are collected by the state trust states. The article on trust forests (page 44) provides more information on these states.

Review state-by-state data on state forest agencies.

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