193+: Evolution of the Forest Service by Al Sample


Al Sample is our fifth author in our series of posts summarizing, riffing on, and updating their essays from the Steve Wilent-edited book 193 Million Acres (hence the category 193+).  This is the first of four posts by Sample.  We are unique in history so far at this time, as those who experienced history can comment on their perceptions of it online to a broad audience. So please relate your own experiences and views of history,  from inside or outside the Forest Service, during these periods in the comments.


While nominally there has been little change in the US Forest Service’s basic mission to promote the conservation and sustainable management of America’s forests, there have been four distinct periods in its history, each with different policy drivers.  For its first 75 years, forest management decision making was determined almost entirely through administrative policy, guided in only the broadest sense by a few very general statutes, such as the Organic Act of 1897.  Additional legislation was enacted largely with the assent of the Forest Service or at the agency’s direct request (Robinson 2011).  The National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA) marked a turning point to the next era, a period in which resource management decisions in the US Forest Service and at other federal land management agencies were guided by agency-specific statutes that placed unprecedented limits on administrative discretion.  Although other federal land management agencies were affected by their own reform legislation, the US Forest Service experienced the most difficult transition, largely because its organizational value system was so deeply ingrained and so widely internalized throughout the agency (Tipple and Wellman 1991).  An independent spirit and a resistance to the varying political winds were regarded internally as a sign of professional integrity, and were a source of great pride.  But they also made the Forest Service inflexible in the face of advancing ecological science and changing public values and made the change, when it came, that much more disruptive.

In the third period, following the breakdown of the NFMA compromise between the forest industry and environmental interests, land management was determined largely by case law, initially based on NFMA and NEPA and ultimately on the Endangered Species Act.  The broad habitat protection mandate under NFMA and ESA in Judge William Dwyer’s decision in Seattle Audubon v. Evans (No. C89-169WD, W.D. Wash. 1991) did not do away with the Forest Service’s traditional multiple-use management framework, but it made clear that should the two come into conflict with one another, the habitat protection mandate must take precedence.  In a subsequent decision turning back both environmental and forest industry legal challenges to the Northwest Forest Plan, Judge Dwyer noted further that there was little chance of federal land management agencies complying with NEPA and ESA without planning on an ecosystem basis (Seattle Audubon v. Lyons, 871 F. Supp. 1291, W.D. Wash. 1994).

The core strength of the US Forest Service organization was again sorely tested.  Traditional multiple-use management had long been focused on accomplishing Congressional timber sale targets and fitting habitat protection and other resource management activities around that central goal.  Many scientists both within and outside the Forest Service also interpreted ESA and NFMA as requiring a primary focus on habitat protection, with commodity production targets adjusted accordingly.  The result was deep internal strife within the Forest Service, between those focused on traditional resource production responsibilities, and the increasing number of “ologists” hired to help the agency comply with NEPA, NFMA, and ESA.

Ultimately the stage was set for the fourth and present period, in which ecosystem management and restoration is the central policy guiding federal land management, and is characterized by large-scale ecoregional planning efforts and by collaborative management processes that are interagency as well as public-private (Skillen 2015).  It turns out that the emphasis on experimentation, feedback, and adjustment has become critically important to the Forest Service’s response to the now accelerating rate of environmental, economic, demographic, and cultural change, in the US itself and in the global context (Millar et al. 2007).  Not least among these are the effects of climate change—no longer a vague possibility sometime in the future, but now widely recognized as a key driver behind recent changes in the size and severity of wildfires, outbreaks of insects and pathogens, the spread of invasive species, water scarcity impacts on aquatic habitat as well as water supplies, extensive tree mortality from prolonged drought, heat, and severe storms (Millar and Stephenson 2015, Allen et al. 2010), and a gradual conversion of vast forested regions of the nation to savannas and other non-forest ecotypes (Allen 2016).

In relative terms, the challenges of adapting forest management to the effects of climate change have come upon the Forest Service quickly, and its experience with ecosystem management is critically important in addressing these new challenges (Halofsky et al. 2015).  The agency’s scientists and land managers have had nearly three decades to work out how to do adaptive management at multiple scales simultaneously—not just in terms of ecological science, but also in terms of collaborative social and political processes that will be essential to ecoregional climate change vulnerability assessments and adaptation planning (Swanston et al. 2016, Halofsky et al. 2016, Sample and Topik 2016, Sample et al. 2013, Peterson et al. 2011).



Allen, C.D., 2016. Forest ecosystem reorganization underway in southwestern United States: A preview of widespread forest changes in the Anthropocene? In: Sample, V.A., Bixler, R.P., and Miller, C. (eds.), 2016.  Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene: Science, Policy, and Practice. University Press of Colorado.

Allen, C.D., Macalady, A.K., Chenchouni, H., Bachelet, D., McDowell, N., Vennetier, M., Kitzberger, T., Rigling, A., Breshears, D.D., Hogg, E.T. and Gonzalez, P., 2010. A global overview of drought and heat-induced tree mortality reveals emerging climate change risks for forests. Forest ecology and management259(4), pp.660-684.

Halofsky, J.E., Peterson, D. and Marcinkowski, K.W., 2015. Climate change adaptation in United States federal natural resource science and management agencies: A synthesis. US Global Change Research Program, Climate Change Adaptation Interagency Working Group.  http://www.globalchange.gov/browse/reports/climate-change-adaptation-united-states-federal-natural-resource-science-and

Halofsky, J., Peterson, D., Metlen, K., Myer, M.G., and Sample, V.A. 2016. Developing and Implementing Climate Change Adaptation Option in Forest Ecosystems: A Case Study in Southwestern Oregon, USA. Forests 7(268); http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/f110268

Millar, C.I., Stephenson, N.L. and Stephens, S.L., 2007. Climate change and forests of the future: managing in the face of uncertainty. Ecological Applications17(8), pp.2145-2151.

Millar, C.I. and Stephenson, N.L., 2015. Temperate forest health in an era of emerging megadisturbance. Science349(6250), pp.823-826.

Peterson, D.L., Millar, C.I., Joyce, L.A., Furniss, M.J., Halofsky, J.E., Neilson, R.P. and Morelli, T.L., 2011. Responding to climate change in national forests: a guidebook for developing adaptation options. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-855. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Robinson, G.O., 2011. The Forest Service: A study in public land management. Resources for the Future, First published in 1975 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sample, V.A. and Topik, C., 2016.  Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene. In: Sample, V.A., Bixler, R.P., and Miller, C. (eds.), 2016.  Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene: Science, Policy, and Practice. University Press of Colorado.

Sample, V.A., Halofsky, J.E., and Peterson, D.L. 2013.  US Strategy for Forest Management Adaptation to Climate Change: Building a Framework for Decision Making.  Annals of Forest Science (DOI: 10.1007/s13595-013-0288-6).

Skillen, J.R., 2015. Federal Ecosystem Management: Its Rise, Fall, and Afterlife. University Press of Kansas.

Swanston, C., Janowiak, M.K., Brandt, L.A., Butler, P.R., Handler, S.D., Shannon, P.D., Lewis, A.D., Hall, K., Fahey, R.T., Scott, L. and Kerber, A., 2016. Forest adaptation resources: climate change tools and approaches for land managers. Second edition. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-87-2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.

Tipple, T.J. and Wellman, J.D., 1991. Herbert Kaufman’s forest ranger thirty years later: From simplicity and homogeneity to complexity and diversity. Public Administration Review, pp.421-428.


Al Sample is Adjunct Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources.  His latest book, with R. Patrick Bixler and Char Miller, is Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene: Science, Policy, and Practice (University Press of Colorado).

3 thoughts on “193+: Evolution of the Forest Service by Al Sample”

  1. It’s hard to put into words a succinct response to Al’s contribution. Some of it fits quite nicely with my experiences, some does not.

    My family has been involved in forest service work, one way or another, since 1929; yes, 1929! I testified before an Arizona legislative hearing about a year ago on the history and changing values of national forest management. It probably had little resemblance to the above article.

    The biggest disagreement given would be in the realm of ecological restoration at the landscape scale. Most of Al’s references are Western centric, Northwest specific. There’s a lot of territory outside that geographic region, also belonging to the national forest system.

    As for ecological restoration at the landscape scale? We were doing that in the late-1970’s, called silvicultural and ecological forest management, courtesy of Dr. Fred Hall!

    As for the future? I am skeptical we’ll ever get to any sort of scope and scale needed to address Forest health and productivity of “suitable” lands, due to the litany of Court challenges from the environmental community!

      • Uhhhh, it was quite pointed toward inaction on the part of the FS as it related to 4- FRI. Long history and some bad blood between the State and USFS…. I have never seen it either, probably wasn’t too good.

        No, I did not throw the FS under the bus, but others certainly did. I felt bad for the DRF in the way she was addressed but hat’s life in the fast lane….


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