The 193 million acres of public lands that make up the National Forest System (NFS) provide critical fish and wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, and many other values. But the U.S. Forest Service still manages many units in the NFS using outdated science and antiquated practices, an approach that could have negative consequences for these ecosystems—and the people and wildlife that depend on them—far into the future.
In fairness, the Forest Service has made great strides. In 1891, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act to prevent exploitive timber practices and to protect watersheds from resulting erosion and flooding. This act created the precursor to the modern NFS, which is now managed by the Forest Service according to multiple-use principles. Over time, management of NFS lands improved as the Forest Service’s mission expanded to incorporate scientific understanding of forests and grasslands and now includes a broader range of values, including outdoor recreation, watersheds, timber production, livestock grazing, fish and wildlife habitat, wilderness, and aesthetic resources. But many of the plans that govern the management of our national forests and grasslands are based on outdated 20th-century science, and the agency could revise these forest management plans to reflect newer research and information. In fact, the law requires that the Forest Service update those plans at least every 15 years, but many haven’t been revised in decades.
The photos below demonstrate both how far the federal government has come in the stewardship of our publicly owned NFS lands, and what’s at stake in determining how these spaces are managed going forward.
By prioritizing plan revisions to reflect modern values and scientific knowledge, the Forest Service can improve its management of the 154 national forests, 20 grasslands, and one prairie under its purview.
Updating these plans will also benefit local communities. NFS lands received a record 168 million visits in 2020, an increase of 18 million from the previous year. These visitors contribute approximately $12.5 billion to the U.S. economy each year and support about 154,000 full- and part-time jobs. But this growth in visits also carries challenges, particularly for the wildlife that live in these places. Revising forest plans can help balance where and when tourism and recreation activities are occurring and ensure that infrastructure, such as functional trailhead facilities, supports human visitors and healthy wildlife habitat.
Similarly, new science is shedding light on issues ranging from climate change’s impact on wildfire behavior to the presence of migratory corridors. Although wildfire can threaten people and property, it can be an important part of a healthy forest, for example by reducing grass, brush, and trees that can fuel large and severe wildfires, and by improving wildlife habitat. And improved GPS collars are allowing scientists an unprecedented look at the movement patterns of numerous ungulate species as they migrate between their summer and winter ranges. By revising forest plans now, the Forest Service can account for all of this new science to better manage these lands.
Moving forward, Pew’s U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project will share opportunities for public engagement in the management of our NFS lands. The Forest Service has made significant progress since the seeds of the agency were planted in 1891, but it must continue to adjust its approach to managing the vast, varied, and versatile lands and waters it oversees. This will help ensure that healthy forests continue to provide numerous and diverse values for generations to come and are accessible to all Americans. We can all contribute to this outcome by becoming actively involved in the future of our forests.
John Seebach is a director and Blake Busse is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.