The Forest Service's Image in 1952

Forty-six years ago, when the Forest Service was nearing the end of its first half century, it stood in high repute. Newsweek's June 2, 1952, issue featured Smokey the Bear on the cover and a five-page story about the agency.

"America's best animal friend is a sturdy brown bear named Smokey," began the article, which went on to praise the agency that conceived the bear.

"No one can deny that the Forest Service is one of Uncle Sam's soundest and most businesslike investments," gushed Newsweek. "It is the only major government branch showing a cash profit and a growing inventory. This year, through timber sales, grazing permits, and other fees, the foresters will turn back to the U.S. Treasury a net surplus of $10 million.

"The $10 million profit is tidy, but it is only a pittance compared with the benefits that don't show up in bookkeeping. The annual value of free recreation, wildlife management, increase in the value of timber stands, and particularly the pure and abundant water easily tops half a billion dollars."

Due to its sound reputation, "The Forest Service is one Washington agency that doesn't have to worry about next fall's election. Nor will the next administration have to worry about the Forest Service. In 47 years, the foresters have been untouched by scandal." As a result, "Most congressmen would as soon abuse their own mothers as be unkind to the Forest Service."

"The Forest Service owes much of its phenomenal efficiency to two policies: decentralization and cooperation with anyone who will cooperate," noted the story. "Decentralization started with a bang in 1908. Gifford Pinchot shot a curt memorandum to his Washington staff: get out into the woods or get out of the service."

"The system works because the service's 2,500 foresters are spoon-fed from the junior forester stage on a diet of responsibility and loyalty to the organization," concluded Newsweek. "The man who rises thorugh the Forest Service is of a peculiar breed. He is a woodsman, a scientist, an engineer, an economist, an accountant, a public-relations expert, and something of a nomad."

"The Forest Service has a few enemies," admitted the article, "mainly disgruntled hunters, livestock raisers, lumbermen, and others who feel that their special interests rate higher than 'the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.'

"Most people who have dealt with the foresters would, however, endorse a statement made by H.O. (Hoss) Stabler, one of the original Pinchot boys, who retired five years ago to his Maryland woodlot. A fellow forester asked Stabler what he considered his greatest contribution to forestry. The veteran tilted back in his chair, pursed his libs, and replied quietly, 'For a considerable period, I helped the American people get their money's worth.' "

As the Forest Service nears its centennial in 2005, its reputation could not be lower. It has suffered scores of scandals. Forest Service abuse is a favorite sport on Capitol Hill. It is much harder to find friends of the agency than enemies. Even Smokey the Bear is blamed for many forest health problems.

These difficulties partly result from agency's increasing centralization since 1970. The fact that it no longer earns a profit doesn't help. The Forest Service in the 1990s loses $2 billion a year managing about the same number of acres as it managed at a profit in the 1950s, leading many Americans to worry they are no longer getting their money's worth.

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