From Maine to California and Florida to Alaska, America’s national forests encompass more than 188 million acres of woodlands, meadows, mountains, and rivers. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, these lands are a national treasure, rich with ecological, social, cultural, and economic value that merits federal protection for generations to come.
Here are four of the many benefits that a healthy National Forest System provides.
1. Maintaining and enhancing biodiversity.
By encompassing significant core habitat and migration corridors, our national forests help support a wide variety of plant and wildlife species, which in turn support biodiversity. Biodiversity is critical for maintaining stable ecosystems and facilitating recovery from disturbances such as wildfires or human activities. Over 3,000 wildlife species, including hundreds that are rare or endangered, call our national forests home.
2. Connecting people to the land.
Long before there was a National Forest System, Indigenous peoples lived on and traveled through forest lands. Native Americans today retain strong cultural and spiritual connections to their ancestral homes and continue to use these areas for religious ceremonies, plant gathering, hunting and fishing, and other purposes. Many other Americans also have personal connections to national forest lands—from the 10th Mountain Division soldiers who trained at Camp Hale, in Colorado’s White River National Forest, and their descendants, to the millions of people who share their favorite spots to hunt, fish, hike, and more with their children. In all, the Forest Service has recorded more than 380,000 cultural resources, from petroglyphs to homesteads, on national forests and grasslands, with 1,200 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, there is a growing recognition that not everyone feels welcome in the nation’s public lands. Factors such as economic inequality, a forest’s location, and a history of racism related to access in outdoor spaces can hinder equitable access to our national forests.
To begin the task of breaking down barriers to equitable access, we can all help to increase connections to our national forests and the outdoors by inviting others to join us to share new experiences in nature. And by working to address the root issues limiting access, we can ultimately make forests more inclusive for more Americans. As author and Middlebury College environmental affairs scholar-in-residence Carolyn Finney put it in a 2020 op-ed in The Guardian, “I can aspire to live in a place where I will not be seen as an anomaly or something to fear or challenge, but instead, am embraced as a reflection of our common humanity that doesn’t deny our differences, but celebrates our possibilities.” By helping more Americans cultivate a connection to our national forests, we can ensure that healthy, functioning forests—and all the benefits they provide—are accessible for years to come.
3. Supporting sustainable recreation economies.
National forests are far more than just scenic places: They’re also major economic drivers that attract hikers, hunters, paddlers, climbers, anglers, horseback riders, skiers, and others who enjoy outdoor activities. Outdoor recreation on lands managed by the Forest Service contributes more than $13 billion to the U.S. economy and supports over 205,000 jobs annually. Many small businesses, including more than 5,000 outfitters and guiding companies, help the public enjoy national forests, which in turn sustains visitor spending in local communities.
For many people, national forests—including those near some major U.S. cities—provide vital opportunities to unplug and attend to our mental and physical well-being. Research has shown that people who walk in a forest have lower blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who walk in a city. “Nature can be beneficial for mental health,” Irina Wen, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, told NBC News. “It reduces cognitive fatigue and stress and can be helpful with depression and anxiety.” With national forests reporting more than 170 million visits a year, it’s clear that many people are enjoying these areas.
4. Preserving ecosystem services.
Ecosystem services are the natural environment’s direct and indirect contributions to human well-being. For example, about 20% of freshwater in the United States originates in national forests and grasslands, and U.S. temperate and boreal forests remove sufficient atmospheric carbon dioxide to reduce national annual net emissions by 11%. By maintaining healthy national forests, Americans will continue to benefit from these important ecosystems.
What we can do to help our national forests—and one another
The U.S. Forest Service needs to hear from people like you that these values matter so that it will prioritize them when making decisions about how our forests are used. Over the coming year, The Pew Charitable Trusts will share opportunities on how the public can communicate the importance of these values, and of expanding existing protections, to the Forest Service.
John Seebach is the director and Blake Busse is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.