The concept of national forests came from Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation group, the Boone and Crockett Club. In 1876, Congress created the Office of Special Agent in the Agriculture Department to assess the quality and conditions of U.S. forests.
In 1881, the office was expanded into the newly formed Division of Forestry. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 authorized withdrawing land from the public domain as “forest reserves”, which was managed by the Department of the Interior. The Division of Forestry became the Bureau of Forestry in 1901.
It became the U.S. Forest Service when the Transfer Act of 1905 transferred the management of forest reserves from the General Land Office of the Interior Department to the Bureau of Forestry.
The following are significant pieces of legislation affecting the Forest Service.
In 1905, Congress passed the Weeks Act. This Act authorized the government to purchase private lands for stream-flow protection and to maintain lands as national forests. This made it possible to expand the national forest system into the eastern U.S. The Act states that is will “examine, locate, and recommend for purchase…such lands within the watersheds of navigable streams as…may be necessary to the regulations of flow of navigable streams.” Meaning, the government could purchase private land if the purchase was deemed necessary to protect rivers and watersheds in the eastern U.S. It also allowed the land acquired through this Act to be preserved and maintained as national forest territory. With land acquired this way, the Chief Forester could issue permits for water power development in National Forests.
Another thing the Weeks Act did was it provided more cooperation between federal and state governments regarding fire control. The 1910 fire season largely influenced this legislation because it destroyed millions of acres of land in the western U.S. That fire season alone put the U.S. Forest Service $1.1 million in debt.
Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960
This Act authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to develop and administer renewable resources of timber, range, water, recreation, and wildlife in National Forests for multiple use and sustained yield of products and services. This is the first law to have the five major uses of National Forests contained in one law equally.
Multiple use is defined as the “management of all various renewable surface resources of national forests so they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the needs of the American people.”
Sustained yield is defined as the “achievement and maintenance in perpetuity of a high-level annual or regular periodic output of various renewable resources of national forests without impairment of the productivity of the land.”
The Act created the legal definition of wilderness in the U.S.
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself, is a visitor who doesn’t remain.”
It took 60+ drafts and 8 years to sign this into law.
National Forest Management Act of 1976
This is the primary statute governing the administration of National Forests. The main objectives of this Act include requiring the U.S. Forest Service to develop plans for National Forests, set standards for timber sales, and create policies to regulate timber harvesting.
National Environmental Policy Act
This act promotes the enhancement of the environment. The most significant outcome was the requirement that all executive federal agencies prepare environmental assessments and environmental impact statements. These reports state potential environmental effects of proposed federal agency actions. However, this does not apply to the President, Congress, or Federal courts.
Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974
This Act authorized the long-range planning by the U.S. Forest Service to ensure the future of forest resources while maintaining a quality environment.
Click below to read more about this agency’s history.
Agency Spotlight—History of the U.S. Forest Service