193 Million Plus: Wild and Free: Recreation Access Means Different Things to Different People- Part II

The Boulders Loop Trail allows off-road vehicles access to the trails behind the houses built near the cul-de-sac at the end of Phoenix Street.
Newer owners object to the public accessing the Forest Service trails through easements by their property.
Michele Nelson/Roundup

This is one of our series of posts by the original authors summarizing, riffing on, and updating essays from the Steve Wilent-edited book 193 Million Acres. This is the second post on my essay on recreation: Wild and Free,.


A brief foray into NVUM from 2018:

The Forest Service’s National Visitor Use Monitoring program (NVUM) website (www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/nvum/) provides a wealth of information about recreation visits and visitors at the forest, region, or national scale. Here are a few interesting statistics drawn from the most recent NVUM data (USDA Forest Service 2018):

  • Most visitors (88 percent) use neither wilderness (0.05 percent) nor overnight developed sites (0.07 percent).
  • Most visitors (95 percent) are somewhat or very satisfied.
  • Approximately half (48 percent) of all visitors have a household income less than $75,000 per year.
  • Half (50 percent) of the visitors travel less than 50 miles, and 75 percent of the visitors travel less than 200 miles.

The NVUM data at the national level indicate that national forest visitors are mostly local and semi-local people from a variety of incomes, who visit the forests for a variety of reasons and are mostly satisfied with their experiences.

Yet there is a growing crisis of funding and capacity.

********** Update: well, there’s a great deal more funding, but then Covid hit and the needs also went up. So today’s situation is very different than when I originally wrote the essay. I wonder what more recent NVUMs would say?

Maintain and Improve Access to Public Lands. This problem has been described in the paper “Landlocked: Measuring Public Land Access in the West,” by the Center for Western Priorities (2013): “The enclosure of public land can result from different circumstances. Lands may be completely surrounded by private lands without any right-of-way to access the adjacent public lands. There may be a public road running through private property which has been closed off. Public lands can be surrounded by private lands in a checkerboard pattern. Sometimes landowners have been known to illegally fence off public roads, effectively shutting out the public from crossing onto publicly-owned land.”

Neighbors to Forest Service land sometimes post no trespassing signs on legal public Forest Service roads. In the Rocky Mountain West, the center’s study estimates that four million acres of public land (Forest Service and BLM) do not have adequate access (defined as adjoining a road or adjoining other acres that adjoin a road). In 1993, a General Accounting Office study showed that an estimated 14 percent of Forest Service and BLM land nationally did not have adequate access (US General Accounting Office 1993).

Because access issues tend to be dealt with by the Forest Service Lands and Realty Management section staff personnel, these acknowledged and serious problems can be overlooked in discussions of recreation needs. These issues will require serious and sustained attention if the public lands are to be kept open for public use. In fact, the Forest Service may not be capable of handling this issue on its own. The lands staffs are overburdened, and at the end of the day, the Department of Justice may not have the capacity or the priorities to take many access cases to court. The problem of neighbors putting up signs could be reduced by focusing on making sure visitors have correct maps (clearly marked paper maps or correct maps via GPS apps on cell phones) and perhaps by posting standard signage on public roads through private land. The difficulties and lack of focus on the issue were described in a story by Marshall Swearingen in High Country News (Swearingen 2015).

In an ideal world, anyone would be able to easily access the half-billion acres managed by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies in the West. But I’m struck by how tenuous, even fragile, our connection to that land is — including the land in this particular corner of Montana, near my home in Bozeman: just thin threads of roads, where access often hangs more on the will of a landowner than on whether a road is truly public or private. Who gets to enjoy the benefits of public land, and at what cost, is more complicated than the crisply mapped property lines. And opening public access is always more difficult than closing it off.

Swearingen’s article outlines the importance of the work of the Public Land Water Access Association in Montana, a group of retirees and others that are focused on this issue and fund litigation to protect public access. Also, in Montana the State has stepped up to work on access, as reported in “Montana kicks off program to improve public land access,” in the Great Falls Tribune (Drake 2017). The article describes MT-PLAN, a new program approved by the state legislature, that “starts a contribution account and grant program to get public access easements to open up public land for recreation and aid public access sites statewide.” The program, overseen by the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, received $25,000 in seed money.

The Forest Service deals with forest visitors that are sometimes poorly behaved in ways that affect neighbors of forests and with some forest neighbors that are poorly behaved in ways that affect forest visitors. Ultimately, mediating these disputes are just about as local as it gets, and perhaps that’s why many of the national interest groups who want to protect public lands don’t seem to focus on or fund this work.

The Forest Service needs to bolster its efforts to deal with the access issue, but interested citizens need to step up as well. Perhaps federal public lands retirees could set up a group similar to Montana’s Public Lands and Waters Access Association (plwa.org), which has a mission to “maintain, restore, and perpetuate public access to the boundaries of all Montana public land and waters,” in other states and increase capacity to deal with this problem? A side benefit of volunteer activities would be that the efforts toward protecting access would be buffered from partisan political drama and administration philosophical and budget changes.

Land Designations by Congress or Presidents that Reduce Access. Much of the dialogue about the need for new wilderness areas or national monuments is about protecting the land from future possible activities like mineral extraction, timber harvesting, and grazing. Whether intentional or via a kind of policy collateral damage, access and recreation uses may be reduced or removed.

On its “Why Wilderness?” web page, the Wilderness Society (TWS) states that “Wilderness is a haven from the pressures of our fast-paced society. It provides us with places where we can seek relief from the noise, haste and crowds that too often confine us. It is a place for us to enjoy with friends and families — strengthening our relationships and building lasting memories.”  (The Wilderness Society 2017)

However, NVUM numbers show that only 0.05 percent of national forest visits are in wilderness. And later, on the same webpage, TWS notes that: “Wild places are a great source of economic activity, especially in the rural communities that surround them. Outdoor recreation contributes more than $646 billion annually to the economy, supports 6.1 million jobs, and generates nearly $80 billion in federal, state, and local taxes.”

As part of its advocacy for increasing wilderness, TWS equates “wild areas,” where most people recreate, with legislated Wilderness. Since mountain bikes are not allowed in Wilderness, a push for more Wilderness necessarily reduces the diversity of recreation opportunities. As John Fisch comments in “Do Bikes Belong in Wilderness Areas?” in the December 20, 2017, edition of Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club: “…bikes don’t belong in the backcountry… and all backcountry must become designated Wilderness. Ergo, the ultimate goal results in mountain bikes losing all backcountry access….” (Teasdale 2017).

It may be that increasing the number of acres in legislatively-designated wilderness areas and increasing, or even maintaining current access for the kinds of recreation that most visitors prefer (in NVUM data) are ultimately on a collision course.

******************  Update: perhaps the recent trend toward Monumentizing could be seen as a “protection with recreation” and as a substitute for Wilderness. And the question of which recreation, where, to be hashed out later during some less-sensationalized and tedious planning process.

Forest Service Decisions that Reduce Access. For a variety of reasons, the agency sometimes takes actions that reduce access, such as closing or decommissioning roads or trails because they are expensive to maintain or cause environmental harm. As an alternative, volunteers and partnerships are sometimes used to help reduce costs and environmental impacts.

Access via Guided Group Recreation. According to the Outdoor Industry Association (2017), “The agencies need to improve access to public lands and waters,” and the ways to improve it are to streamline permitting processes for guided and educational groups. These groups “afford urban youth and first-time recreationists the opportunity to get outside.”

The outdoor industry and others have a narrative that goes something like this, as stated by Myles Pham in “How Access to Public Lands Can Lead to Environmental Activism,” an October 17, 2017, Sierra Club blog post (Myles Pham (2017): “New participants are essential to growing the outdoor recreation economy and encouraging a new generation of climbers, fishers, and skiers. These kids will become the next generation of environmental advocates by virtue of protecting our public lands that give them joy.”

This is the instrumental view of increasing access for future consumers of outdoor products and environmental advocates. It is about increasing access for certain groups, such as urban youth and first-time recreationists, by making it easier to get to public lands in organized groups. It sounds like the idea is to make sure that in the future, people vote to “protect” public lands by increasing their recreation opportunities now. It could be argued that that will only encourage people to impact the land more (if we acknowledge that recreation has impacts) and lead to less ultimate “protection.”

Unless, of course, the concept of “protection” includes recreation of preferred types, still -even Wilderness is not protected from impacts of recreation. It’s all puzzling and seems illogical to me.

******Riffing.. in my career in the FS, when I couldn’t follow peoples’ logic, there was usually something they weren’t telling me. In this case perhaps we’ve entered some kind of ideological thicket.

*********Updating… perhaps funding should be used to focus on “protecting” land closer to marginalized communities, as per this study from 2022, for example. 

The concept of access can clearly mean different things to different people. Everyone thinks that access to public lands is important but may disagree about who should get more access, who should get less access, and how much effort should be directed at maintaining and increasing public access through private lands. Access by recreationists of whatever kind has undeniable environmental impacts, and outdoor recreation is growing. How are these tensions to be managed?

193 Million Plus: Wild and Free: Diverse Dispersed Recreation as the Forest Service’s Main Mission- Part I

Photo taken August 2017 by Deborah Lee Soltesz. Source: U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest. Visit Wing Mountain Dispersed Camping and Coconino National Forest for more information.

This is one of our series of posts by the original authors summarizing, riffing on, and updating essays from the Steve Wilent-edited book 193 Million Acres. I thought this would be a good time to discuss as Patrick McKay raised the issue of “what does the FS as an agency think about recreation, and how is that manifested through their actions?”. There’s also the Reimagine Recreation initiative that the Forest Service is currently undertaking. Perhaps many of you have been asked to participate in the Engagement sessions.

Given that background, here’s my essay. Or Part I, anyway.


If national parks are, as the writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner once said, “America’s best idea,” then perhaps national forests are America’s best experience. The American people agree, and they are voting emphatically with their feet, bikes, horses, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), snowmobiles, and recreational vehicles (RVs).

National forests tend to be wide open for a variety of both traditional and new personal uses and experiences, from firewood and Christmas tree cutting, to mountain biking, off-road vehicle riding, hunting and fishing, berry and mushroom picking, developed and dispersed camping, and simply being in nature.

Although mediated experiences provided at ski areas and through guides and outfitters can be an important piece of connecting to the outdoors, that is not the quintessential national forest experience. If you were to travel, as I once did, from the Kootenai National Forest in Idaho to the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico during elk season, you would see a thousand “dispersed camping” elk-hunter camps. You would see mothers and brothers, cousins and college buddies, grandfathers and friends, with dogs and horses and ATVs and camps of all shapes, sizes, and degrees of comfort, from roughing it to luxurious. Most of these thousands of people have a variety of both guns and alcohol in camp, law enforcement is far away, and cell coverage often is unavailable. For the most part, these people get along and behave responsibly toward each other and the land. They get along with cattle that have not yet trekked to their home ranches for the winter (and occasionally leave deposits as they walk through camp). In some parts of the Rocky Mountains, hunters on all-terrain vehicles share the road with mountain bikers, while in other parts, they share with log trucks or tractor trailers carrying natural gas pipes. Day to day, mostly it works. People generally get along with each other and have meaningful outdoor experiences that form lasting and powerful memories. The experiences can be pragmatic (providing meat for the freezer), relational (spending time with family or hunting buddies), and spiritual (encountering nature one on one).

The contrast with the national parks in the Rockies could not be more striking. In the parks, people’s options are limited; their dogs are prohibited on trails and in many backcountry and wilderness areas, campsites are tiny and clumped together, and they endure crowded lodging and restaurants and standing in long lines with tourists from far away places. The atmosphere can be more like a shopping center—more “mall-ic” than bucolic—and certainly more expensive than the national forest experience. The national parks experience is clearly a good thing for many people, but not for all. And these experiences can’t substitute for the diversity of opportunities on national forests today.

What makes national forest experiences so different? They tend to be unmediated and relatively unmanaged. (The same goes for lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management [BLM], an Interior Department agency). You might say that these experiences are wide open, wild, and free. Free in the sense of not having to pay fees for most places and activities, and free in the sense of having few regulations in place, and only as needed to protect the land or minimize user conflicts. The perception is a sense of trust—it’s a kind of Tennessee Williams policy that “depends on the kindness of strangers” to each other and to the land, and yet the surprise is that people can be left alone and will mostly be decent to the land and to each other. To circle back to Stegner, who also said that the national parks are “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst,” I would have to respectfully disagree. It’s that very basic trust in self-governance, personal freedom, and responsibility that plays out in the national forests, on all 193 million acres, 24/7. For me, this is not about ideas or abstractions; it is rooted in the direct experiences of people on the land.

We don’t even have a word for these types of experiences and these forms of recreation. If we look at agency definitions of “unmanaged” recreation, Brooks and Champ (2006) note that “Conversations with recreation researchers and Forest Service employees are often peppered with alternative labels such as ‘unmanageable recreation’; ‘difficult to manage recreation’; ‘inappropriate dispersed recreation’; or ‘unmonitored nontraditional activities, growing in popularity.’” Certainly, the term “unmanaged” carries a negative tone, so there should be an expression for diverse and dispersed recreation opportunities that acknowledges that, like managed recreation, dispersed activities can occur at any place on the problematic spectrum. For the purposes of this essay, I will call this diverse dispersed recreation, and I advocate that the Forest Service and BLM increase their capacity to provide quality diverse dispersed recreation opportunities.

*** I’ve thought since that maybe “self-managed” has a nicer tone. And the better people behave, the less enforcement and regulation will be necessary. *********

The challenge for the Forest Service in the future is how to maintain diverse dispersed recreation opportunities and how to transition gracefully into a period of more restrictions due to increasing populations of visitors and unknown future budgets. In 2050, will there still be places where the current range of recreation experiences are still allowed? I, for one, hope so.

193+: II. Ecosystem Management and the Return of Administrative Discretion, by Al Sample

We didn’t get much discussion going on the last of Al Sample’s 193 Million Acres posts.

So I’ll set out what I think might be the most controversial part..

Ecoregional planning was defined by immense landscapes, entire mountain ranges, the great river systems, the habitat requirements of wide-ranging vertebrate species—and by the federal courts’ tightly-articulated interpretation of what was required of federal agencies to comply with the Endangered Species Act.  Adaptive management demanded near-continuous experimentation, monitoring, evaluation, adjustment, and more experimentation.  This resulted in equally continuous plan revisions and adjustments, rather than a wholesale reconsideration of a national forest plan every 10-15 years as originally envisioned in NFMA.

Because these large landscapes invariably encompassed a mosaic of federal, state, tribal, and private lands and an enormous diversity of stakeholders, new collaborative planning models gradually emerged (Cortner et al. 1998, Cortner and Moote 1999), built upon a foundation of shared values, common goals, mutual respect—and a commitment to keep moving forward in order to address the ever-increasing array of conservation challenges on these landscapes.  Large landscape conservation and ecoregional planning, by their sheer scale and complexity, do not lend themselves to central planning or micromanagement.  They tend to steadily push decision making toward the local level (Kennedy and Quigley 1998).  Even within the strictures of the reform statutes of the 1970s and subsequent case law, agency decision makers now have broader de facto administrative discretion in federal land management than at any time in the past half-century.

What was your experience of “ecoregional planning”? I thought maybe it was the Northwest Forest Plan and the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, but are there others across the country?  Are they plans outside of NFMA planning that amend plans? I don’t think the NWFP passed decision making to the local level (but I haven’t read the Kennedy and Quigley paper) nor did it allow for much adaptive management (according to my sources).

So what was “ecoregional planning” supposed to do in your view?  Where was it tried? Where did it work? Is anyone doing it now? And how did it/does it relate to NFMA planning?


Here’s Al’s post.

Ecosystem management and the return of administrative discretion

Against all odds, the US Forest Service has managed to navigate more than four decades of controversy and existential challenges.  Since the 1960s crisis over clearcutting on the Bitterroot, Monongahela, and other national forests, various political forces on the left and the right have called for the abolishment of the agency, the national forests, or both.  Chastened by prescriptive reform legislation in the 1970s, and wrestled to a virtual standstill by litigation in the 1980s, the agency has endured external strife and internal strains that would have broken most organizations.

Yet the US Forest Service has gradually found new footing, and today exercises greater professional discretion in forest management decision making than at any time in the past half-century. The Forest Service has helped pioneer the ecological science as well as the social processes that are central to modern adaptive management of forest ecosystems. But the pace of environmental, economic, and social changes affecting forests is accelerating.  The future of the Forest Service, and its ability to continue its evolving mission to promote the conservation and sustainable management of the nation’s forests, may depend on its ability to demonstrate to policymakers and an urbanized public the net values derived from the nation’s relatively modest—but critically important—investments in forest sustainability and resilience.

Striving to meet public (and Congressional) expectations, the US Forest Service and the national forests almost single-handedly supplied the raw materials for the post-war housing boom, mostly from old-growth forests in the West, as private forests recovered from harvesting in support of the war effort (Hirt 1996, Culhane 2013). At the same time, the national forests hosted a steadily increasing number of outdoor recreationists, with more than twice the number of visitors to the national parks (Steen 1977).  Having arguably invented the concept of multiple-use sustained-yield forest management (Steen 1991), the agency was stunned by its public characterization as disregarding environmental values in its quest for ever-higher timber harvests.  The eventual compromise on the National Forest Management Act, in combination with other environmental reform legislation of the period—the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Water Act, Wilderness Act, and Endangered Species Act—brought much greater public participation and oversight in the agency’s land management decision making, and new limits on its professional discretion (Ackerman 1990).  The breakdown of this compromise in the 1980s ushered in a difficult decade of repeated litigation, with the agency’s management discretion even more sharply limited by new statutory interpretations in case law.

Ironically, the ecosystem management policy that emerged from this struggle started a process whereby the agency’s field managers began to regain a measure of their former management discretion, but in a different form.  Ecoregional planning was defined by immense landscapes, entire mountain ranges, the great river systems, the habitat requirements of wide-ranging vertebrate species—and by the federal courts’ tightly-articulated interpretation of what was required of federal agencies to comply with the Endangered Species Act.  Adaptive management demanded near-continuous experimentation, monitoring, evaluation, adjustment, and more experimentation.  This resulted in equally continuous plan revisions and adjustments, rather than a wholesale reconsideration of a national forest plan every 10-15 years as originally envisioned in NFMA.

Because these large landscapes invariably encompassed a mosaic of federal, state, tribal, and private lands and an enormous diversity of stakeholders, new collaborative planning models gradually emerged (Cortner et al. 1998, Cortner and Moote 1999), built upon a foundation of shared values, common goals, mutual respect—and a commitment to keep moving forward in order to address the ever-increasing array of conservation challenges on these landscapes.  Large landscape conservation and ecoregional planning, by their sheer scale and complexity, do not lend themselves to central planning or micromanagement.  They tend to steadily push decision making toward the local level (Kennedy and Quigley 1998).  Even within the strictures of the reform statutes of the 1970s and subsequent case law, agency decision makers now have broader de facto administrative discretion in federal land management than at any time in the past half-century.



Ackerman, S., 1990. Observations on the transformation of the Forest Service: The effects of the National Environmental Policy Act on US Forest Service decision making. Envtl. L.20, p.703.

Cortner, H. and Moote, M.A., 1999. The politics of ecosystem management. Island Press.

Cortner, H.J., Wallace, M.G., Burke, S. and Moote, M.A., 1998. Institutions matter: the need to address the institutional challenges of ecosystem management. Landscape and urban planning40(1), pp.159-166.

Culhane, P.J., 2013. Public lands politics: Interest group influence on the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Routledge.

Hirt, P.W., 1996. A conspiracy of optimism: Management of the national forests since World War Two. U of Nebraska Press.

Kennedy, J.J. and Quigley, T.M., 1998. Evolution of USDA Forest Service organizational culture and adaptation issues in embracing an ecosystem management paradigm. Landscape and Urban Planning40(1), pp.113-122.

Steen, H.K., 1977. The US Forest Service: A History. Durham, NC: Forest History Society.

Steen, H.K., 1991. The beginning of the National Forest System. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

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).

193+: “Revisions which a minute will reverse”: Rethinking the Forest Service in Time by Char Miller

193 Million Acres: Toward a Healthier and More Resilient Forest Service covers a lot of territory. Taken most literally, the title refers to the lands that the US Forest Service stewards across the United States. But it also evokes the reciprocal dynamic of that stewardship: the different ecosystems—forest, grassland, and wilderness, to name a few—have had a profound impact on the federal agency’s actions; it is also true that the Forest Service, by its policy decisions, budgetary outlays, and managerial schemes have altered conditions on the ground. This feedback loop is of prime importance.

It is vital for another reason. Whether read individually and/or collectively, the contributions to 193 Million Acres reveal alterations in how researchers have analyzed the interplay between the agency and the public lands over the years, a process of rethinking and revising which stretches back to the establishment of the Forest Service in 1905.

The probing the significance of these revisions—historical, scientific, political—form the crux of my chapter in the anthology, “Future Imperfect: The Forest Service and Federal Land Management in a Climate-Charged Environment.” The title and text are self-consciously framed in the concise, three-word description of the historian’s narrative strategy—change over time. And what better way to illustrate some of these historic forces than by starting in the present? A present in which a warming planet is rearranging ecological relationships and thereby disrupting the capacity of the Forest Service, among other institutions, to manage as they once did.

Here’s the set up:

How will the agency steward its 193 million acres of forests and grasslands as the climate and landscapes shift in relation to one another? The Forest Service and its agency peers “know enough now to begin taking decisive action at the local, state, regional, and federal level to implement adaption strategies on public and private forest lands” (Malmsheimer et al. 2008). That said, these agencies have encountered “bottlenecks,” based not so much on the “limitations of our science as on limitations in the policies and existing institutional framework within which forestry is practiced” (Sample, Bixler, and Miller 2016).

These confounding situations have arrived at a fascinating moment in the agency’s history. Founded in 1905, in the immediate aftermath of its centennial celebrations the Forest Service found itself with a golden opportunity to (re)consider whether its prior commitments would allow it to celebrate its bicentennial. That may seem an odd statement. After all, the Forest Service has managed to weather serious challenges in the past, a legacy suggesting it might prove as nimble when confronted with future trials, however unpredictable those posed by global warming may be. Would the agency’s history offer a useful guide to a future layered with the dilemmas a warmer Earth currently is producing? However traumatic climate change is already proving to be, however disruptive its impact on the agency’s previous patterns of behavior and action, analyzing the agency’s past still may provide insight into its future. How will its leaders, line officers, rangers, and staff face the daily complexities posed by an integrated series of forces that may overwhelm their capacity to manage landscapes? How will they respond to the welter of opportunities and challenges that already have emerged and will arise? These are not just policy questions; they also have a historical dimension, for as Richard Neustadt and Ernest May (1986) observe in Thinking in Time: “[S]eeing the past can help one envision alternative futures.”

The bulk of the chapter then explored three possible paths that could redefine the Forest Service’s structure and mission.

Scenario One: Evolutionary Dynamics

The Forest Service has evolved in relation to the lands that it manages, establishing a dynamic interaction between the environment and the professional conservationists who seek to steward it, which confirms a broader claim: “History has repeatedly demonstrated that the health and welfare of human societies are fundamentally dependent on the health and welfare of their forests” (Thompson 2008). This reciprocity, in its particularity and broad sweep, may prove the key to the agency’s long-term survival. Because over time it has had to adapt to shifts in political temper, scientific knowledge, and social concern, its legacy of resilience also may define its 21st-century behavior in an era of climate change, enabling it to morph as required while retaining its core responsibilities and organizational structure.

Scenario Two: Devolutionary Progress

Yet what happens when the rate of change is so rapid and/or radical that organisms emerge as something else altogether? Indeed, a proposed alteration that the Forest Service has faced—and to date has fended off—is the devolution of its lands and authority to the individual states in which its forests, wildernesses, and grasslands are located. Those who have argued for this outcome have drawn on a powerful strain in American political thought, starting with the 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved for the States respectively, or to the people.” In attempting to define the precise relationship between federal and state sovereignty, a central issue in the United States since the 18th century, the amendment makes clear that this relationship is in tension. The Forest Service knows this full well, for the agency long has been a flashpoint in the heated political debate between states’ rights and national prerogatives. What followed was a comparative analysis of how and why the national forest-management agencies in Canada and New Zealand—which initially replicated the US model that Gifford Pinchot and his successors had developed—lost their managerial authorities and foci. Were their experiences suggestive of what might lie in store for the US Forest Service in the 21st century? (Hint: I don’t think so).

Scenario Three: Revolutionary Impulse

Would the creation of a new Department of Conservation in the executive branch be more likely? With a seat in the cabinet, this department might house the nation’s most important land management agencies—the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Geological Survey, National Resources Conservation Service, and National Park Service, among other entities. By creating economies of scale and greater efficiencies of action, this new department could save money and serve as a standard-bearer for the modern environmental movement. That said, this approach flies in the face of contemporary environmentalism, which stresses local agency over national solutions, and would upset those restive elements of the sagebrush opposition for whom increased federal authority is an anathema. Yet an unreflective dismissal of this possibility may lead conservationists to miss a chance to restructure federal land-management institutions and their delivery of environmental services. It may turn out that the most effective way to secure much-desired bottom-up reform is through simultaneous top-down change, which is particularly pressing in this climate-shifting era.

I knew enough to know that by themselves—and even in combination—these three scenarios are more evocative than prescriptive. My goal, after all, was to suggest ways by which institutional change might occur, despite knowing that so many unforeseen contingencies and unknown conflicts could arise to redirect the Forest Service’s future and thus the later narrating of its history. This is precisely what makes my job so much fun: The past and present, like writing itself, is in a constant state of revision.

Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College. His new book, Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Peril will be published in September. He is also the author of America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands and the award-winning Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, among others.


193+: Millennial Employees and Rural Places: A Millennial’s Thoughts About Increasing Forest Service Recruitment and Retention in Rural Places by Don Radcliffe

Don Radcliffe

This is the third  in our series of posts by the original authors summarizing, riffing on, and updating essays from the Steve Wilent-edited book 193 Million Acres.

The original title of the essay was Millennial Employees and Rural Places: A Millennial Forester’s Thoughts about Increasing Young Employee Recruitment and Retention in the National Forest System.  Information on the author, Don Radcliffe, can be found at the end of the post.

My essay for 193 Million Acres explored issues the Forest Service had with recruiting and retaining talented young employees, specifically within the national forest system. I was 26 and it was 2017 when I wrote it; I had worked for the Forest Service as a seasonal silviculture technician in a small western town in 2014 and 2015, then worked in construction with my family and did a forest policy internship with the Society of American Foresters, before going to graduate school for forestry and forest ecology. So the essay was based on personal experience, along with a bit of literature review. Working with my family’s general contracting business showed me that companies which treated their employees well usually had the best reputations for quality work, and greater longevity. My opinion was that the Forest Service was a decent place to work as a young person, but that it had a lot of room for improvement. When the opportunity arose to write for 193 Million Acres, I thought up seven recommendations for improvement in recruitment and retention of talented young employees in the Forest Service, which I’ll list out below.

But before listing out recommendations, I explored a couple important areas of background context: rural demographic patterns and attitudes of Millennials towards the workplace. The gist of the rural demographic section was that most rural spaces are becoming lonely places for people in their twenties. However, there are a few rural recreation destinations that tend to concentrate more young people, tending to focus around areas of natural beauty. These destinations have much turnover due to high housing prices in combination with unstable and low wage seasonal work. The gist of the Millennial attitudes section was that many of us Millennials want to make a positive impact in our work, seek consistent growth in our work, and we seek work-life balance. More so than past generations, we will change jobs and/or careers if these needs aren’t met. Often these characteristics are framed negatively, but I see them as an economic and survival imperative. We grew up in uncertain times with great changes in job markets and rising cost of living, and we grew up being taught about a wide variety of existential threats. If we aren’t constantly learning new skills, we risk being left behind by automation and/or political restructuring. If we aren’t making a positive impact in our work, we may not leave much of a world for our future children.

With this background of rural demographic patterns and millennial attitudes towards the workplace in mind, I listed seven recommendations to improve recruitment and retention of talented
young workers in the Forest Service. The recommendations mostly touch on issues that are much broader than the narrow context of this blog post, and I’m keeping them very brief here. And all these issues are also explored in some of the other essays in 193 Million Acres, to different degrees and with different focuses. Briefly, my recommendations were:

Recommendation 1: Diversify the work and provide more mentorship. Many 1039 seasonal employees have relatively monotonous experiences in a season with the Forest Service, and some have a greater variety of experiences. I think efforts to expand the breadth of a young seasonal’s experience is likely to increase their interest in the overall work of the Forest Service, and improve the chance they will return for a second season and beyond. Forests should place more emphasis on mentorship, which is a major factor by which millennials judge the quality of their job.
Personally, I got lucky in my seasonal position and was able to learn from working in a variety of tasks, and that was a major factor in deciding to return to the same job for a second season.

Recommendation 2: Promote on merit
Anyone reading this essay has probably at least heard stories about bad promotions and deadweight employees in government agencies. I don’t have the management experience in the Forest Service to really understand how problematic deadweight employees are or aren’t, and I’m not as sure that it’s a real problem as I used to be, as I’ve interacted with many very helpful Forest Service employees on several national forests both when I’ve been an employee and a grad student. But when I was a seasonal there was a narrative that being a good employee didn’t help you get promoted in the Forest Service, and that being a bad employee could get you promoted because it was the only way a boss could ‘get rid of you.’ Clearly that kind of narrative is going to be deterring to ambitious and talented young employees, and I think efforts to give promotions to those who deserve them will be motivating to talented young employees of the Forest Service.

Recommendation 3: Pay people what they’re worth
I’ve often seen pay raises being held back at the Forest Service. For example, a person with a college degree is supposed to make a GS-5 wage, but most people I know have been hired out of college at a GS-4 and kept there for one, two, up to four years. Even upper-level forestry positions like district silviculturists are often paid a couple GS levels less than what they’re supposed to be. Obviously holding pack pay increases doesn’t make the Forest Service an inviting place for talented young people with the skills to work elsewhere.

Recommendation 4: Hire more people

A major theme of my essay is that rural places are often lonely for young people. In a small Forest Service town, the community of seasonals is likely to provide most of the social life for employees fresh out of college. More seasonals and young permanents would mean a richer community, and more reasons to stick around. More jobs open generally may also decrease the need to move frequently to climb up the ladder, therefore increasing stability of the Forest Service lifestyle, for those who want it. Additionally, having more employees would increase the talent pool available to the Forest Service.

Recommendation 5: Make rural districts better places for young people
Those small towns with higher proportions of young people have a couple of common characteristics: ‘natural amenities’ defined by proximity to scenery, topographic variation, water, large
forested regions, and/or a pleasant climate, and access to recreation. For the most part, natural amenities are a set asset, and some places will have more than others. But Forest Service districts can work with the natural amenities they have to develop recreation opportunities that will give people of all ages more reasons to move to a town and stick with it. I won’t claim that developing recreation is a magic bullet: it can lead to well-known issues with rural gentrification, cultural clashes, and high turnover of residents. But from what I’ve seen in both the literature and from various places I’ve lived, developing recreation is the only option that small production-focused towns have for attracting and retaining young people with college degrees.

Recommendation 6: Recruit (and retain) a greater diversity of workers

The United States is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, and other dimensions of identity, and the Forest Service cannot adequately serve this diverse constituency without hiring and retaining a more diverse set of employees, and making them feel included in the agency. Additionally, an increasing number of young people prioritize being in communities and jobs where they are surrounded by a diversity of identities and viewpoints, as a matter of both self-growth and societal equity. The Forest Service has made strides to increase diversity and inclusion in the agency, but there is still a widespread perception and a reality of the Forest Service dominated by heterosexual white men. The agency will not fare well in recruitment and retention of young employees if it does not improve its reputation on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Recommendation 7: Promote forestry and inspire the general public
I think this is my most important recommendation in my essay. Since the day I decided to major in forestry I’ve been fielding questions like: ‘so you want to be a park ranger?’ Most often people that I interact with either don’t have any kind of schema for what forestry is, and they go straight to one end or the other of the ‘loggers vs. tree huggers’ dichotomy, depending on where they grew up and what their experiences in forests had been. I’ve often tried to explain forestry to a friend or loved one several times, and they end up going back to the dichotomy. In my time in grad school, several people have told me to call myself a researcher of forest ecology rather than a researcher of silviculture or forestry, because I would get more grant money. For decades college departments have been moving away from using the word ‘forestry’ in their name, like my department at the University of Washington. Career is such a defining part of identity in our culture, and the forestry community is surely losing both talented young people and the money to hire them to the lack of positive public perception of forestry. I think what we’re lacking is inspiration; I haven’t seen many folks successfully communicating what an inspiring job we have, working to balance many crucial societal needs at once. If we can do a better job at being inspiring about forestry, I think it would go a long way towards improving the Forest Service’s ability to recruit and retain young people.

Changes in my opinions since I wrote the essay in 2017

I don’t have many changes to my opinions since I wrote the original essay, but it’s possible some things are out of date already. My finger is less on the pulse of Forest Service affairs than it was in 2017; when my time with the Forest Service and with the Society of American Foresters was fresh and more relevant. Additionally, most of my experience and research was relevant to the Millennial generation that I’m a part of, but Generation Z is increasingly more relevant to discussions about young employees. There was little published research on Gen Z in the workplace when I was looking, and I haven’t had time to dig into any literature that’s been published since. My hunch is that Gen Z has similar attitudes towards the workplace to Millennials, and that it may be even more imperative for the Forest Service to pay attention to their needs and to my recommendations to recruit and retain Gen Z employees, but I don’t have a lot of hard evidence to back that up.

I am now a little more optimistic about the ability of small towns to attract and retain young people, after seeing movement patterns shift somewhat during the pandemic, when remote work untethered some employees from their employer’s location. Clearly there are some young people living in big cities for economic reasons when lifestyle preferences might lean more rural. I haven’t had time to research pandemic movement patterns in depth, but the fact that some young people did move out of cities when given the economic opportunity gives hope that small Forest Service towns will be able to attract and retain vibrant communities of talented young employees, if the Forest Service can provide a quality place of employment.

About the author
Don Radcliffe is currently studying fuel treatment longevity and rotation, as a PhD candidate in Brian Harvey’s lab at the University of Washington. He has previously worked for the Forest Service in Montana as a silviculture technician and firefighter, for the Society of American Foresters in Washington D.C. as a forest policy intern, and as a project manager with his parents’ construction company in Wisconsin. He has a B.S. in Forest Science and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and an M.S. in Environment and Natural Resources from Ohio State University, where he studied mesophication in oak forests. He is also on Twitter here.

193+: Gospels of Efficiency – What Does Efficiency Mean, Anyway? by Lloyd Irland

This is the second in our series of posts summarizing and riffing on folks’ essays from the Steve Wilent-edited book 193 Million Acres. I first met Lloyd Irland’s  work back in the dinosaur days; a paper or presentation about Maine woodlots in conditions of market uncertainty.  I tried to find it to introduce this essay, but instead ran across a book chapter from 1984 on improving the EIS process: a case study of spruce budworm control.  Suffice it to say that Dr. Irland has been around for a while, and seen and studied many interesting things.


When I was an undergrad, forestry economists were confidently announcing with a new approach to setting priorities: evaluate them according to economic metrics like net present value and return on investment. This, they believed, would enable officials to screen out projects that the economists considered inefficient and thus boost effectiveness of management of the federal forests. It was time, they said to make decisions on the basis of economic facts rather that vague notions of “good management”. Vast displays of such analyses, often comparing dozens and dozens of treatment options, were produced. Economists were soon being added to staffs at individual National Forests. Late in graduate school I read Sam Hays’s book “The Gospel of Efficiency” (note: this book can be read for free) about the leaders of the early conservation movement.

Fast forward a few decades: Steve Wilent invites contributions to a book on the “Efficiency and effectiveness of the US Forest Service”. I ponder this for a time: “efficiency, not a bad idea. But what does it really mean for forestry anyway?” As I thought about this, I remembered Hays’s book and decided to review an evolving series of different “Gospels of Efficiency”, a shorthand way to talk about different definitions of efficiency. I came up with a list:

Efficiency as elimination of waste, of losses to forest fire, and overgrazing. Major themes of early foresters at a time of peak lumber consumption by a growing nation. This way Hays’s conservation movement.

Efficiency as cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis, to be based on quantification. Science was to be the arbiter of what is “efficient”. This was becoming institutionalized as Program Planning and Budgeting, led on by MacNamara’s whiz kids at the Department of Defense. Those priests of efficiency then got me sent to Vietnam to efficiently fire artillery at targets out in the jungle.

The Gospel of Growth: effectiveness as working to meet ever-rising future needs for wood, meat, water, and campsites and hiking trails. Extreme examples proliferated: roads and pre-commercial
thinnings in lodgepole stands at 8,000 feet even “terracing” to solve the problem of poor regeneration. Huge dams were built on the premise that water that did not flow over an alfalfa field or through a turbine was flowing wastefully to the sea.

By the 1970s and 80s, more groups walked into the debates on efficiency with different notions of what might be efficient—unquantifiable values, outdoor recreation, biodiversity needed to be
accommodated, if not reign supreme. How to do this? The Gospel of Planning arose. We would build national RPA planning assessments and those would help set priorities for new Management
Plans that would enables us to serve all important values at once. The staffs, their offices, their conferences, and their documents got bigger and bigger. The ensuing analysis paralysis frustrated everyone. I found myself quoting General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell who remarked, after visiting the Army’s War Plans unit in about 1940: “Somebody with a loud voice and big stick needs to march in there and yell “Halt”. Then carry all the plans outside and burn them”.

A solution was duly found: We’d keep the books better. Accounting, we were told, would give us the answers we were seeking. Hence the journey into TSPIRS. Money gainers were efficient, losers weren’t. That would be that. Herculean efforts ensued, conferences were held, computers whirred, accountants debated. Then the idea seems to have vanished.

Today a new Gospel has arrived: the Gospel of Ecosystem Services. If managing forests can’t make money from wood, answer is to get people to pay for ecosystem services. This concept had been
gaining traction for some time as Carbon arrived –the ultimate ecosystem service. It is not possible building on inventory, yield predictions, and GIS achievements for past decades, to design management program that will maximize the new single variable of choice: the carbon balance.

One reader of a draft cautioned me that the term “Gospels” should never be mentioned on campus these days. I retained it anyway as it hints at the fervor and determination of the advocates for these programs. None of these advocates were fools; they were optimistic that they had found solutions – they could make “efficiency” an effective mandate and guideline for forest management.

But the history of these Gospels shows that efficiency has meaning only in relation to goals. If there are no agreed-upon goals, then efficiency dissolves as a goal. But in an increasingly polarized and even tribal society, groups are bitterly divided over goals. For a time, satisfying groups of warring “stakeholders” seemed the only way forward. Now in a time when every stakeholder is back d by “campaigners”, litigators, and abundant funding, making peace among stakeholders seems a faint hope in many places.

Solutions: there are no new Gospels to resolve these predicaments, which are rooted in the polarization and entitlement trends in our wider society. Forestry cannot escape them. Some observers believe they are making effective governance virtually impossible, a view that has some merit in my estimation. A few incremental improvements could be made, however. Let me list two, and hope that you will read the full essay to see the others.

Revitalize and place higher priority on National Forest System implementation and effectiveness monitoring. For a time this was an active field. Today you search in vain for recent and through
reports. Without good information on what is actually happening, how can we begin to discuss efficiency, effectiveness, or goal attainment? Probably few “Forest Supes” ever make Regional
Forester on the basis of distinction on this task. I know this process interests data nerds and policy junkies like myself, but it is only good management and communication. It has to be done.

Second, I once had copies of two evaluations, a decade apart, that were conducted on the National Forests in Wyoming, following intense criticism of management practices on marginal, roadless lands. Unfortunately this was a pre-computer, pre-pdf era. Both reports were by informed and serious, outside people who studied, listened, and visited. The reports, in my opinion, were excellent, and should have received much wider distribution. I wish this could be done again, now and then, in representative locations around the country.


from Sharon.. if anyone has copies of these evaluations, please send and I will post.