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U.S. Forest Service

The story of the Forest Service is one of fascinating people, places, politics, laws, and controversies. The Forest Service was established by an act of Congress in 1905, during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, at the height of the Progressive Movement. The founding of the Forest Service actually has its roots in the last quarter of the 19th century.

The national forests (originally called forest reserves) began with the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which allowed the president to establish forest reserves from timber-covered public domain land. Several early leaders, visionaries, organizations, forestry professionals, and willing presidents led the successful effort to retain millions of acres of federal forest land for future generations.

The agency itself was created from two federal entities. Beginning in 1891, forested public domain lands were set aside by presidential proclamation in order to reduce destructive logging and preserve watersheds. The forest reserves were controlled by the Department of the Interior’s General Land Office. Forestry expertise, however, was the job of the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry. The division's primary mission was information gathering and dissemination, and later, scientific experimentation was added to its responsibilities. On February 1, 1905, the USDA Forest Service was established within the Department of Agriculture. The agency was given a unique mission: to sustain healthy, diverse, and productive forests and grasslands for present and future generations. From the earliest days of the agency, the U.S. Forest Service has kept forest management as a primary focus.

In 1907 the reserves were renamed national forests. The next year, six district offices were organized in the West for field work. The establishment of national forests in the East began after President Taft signed the Weeks Law in 1911, which created the National Forest Reservation Commission, and authorized federal funds to purchase lands on the watersheds of navigable streams. By 1934, 10 regions existed: Northern, Rocky Mountain, Southwestern, Intermountain, California, North Pacific, Eastern, Southern, North Central, and Alaska. In addition, there were 11 forest and range experiment stations. During subsequent years, the Forest Service continued to expand and consolidate national forests, research stations, and regional offices. The agency also transferred lands to the Department of the Interior for national parks and monuments.

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, served from 1905 to 1910. Pinchot restructured and professionalized the management of national forests, and also greatly increased their area and number. During his period in office, the Forest Service expanded considerably. In 1905, forest reserves numbered 60 units, covering 56 million acres. In 1910 there were 150 national forests covering 172 million acres. A pattern of effective organization, management, and conservation of natural resources was set during Pinchot's administration. Pinchot is regarded as the "father" of American conservation because of his unyielding concern for the protection of American forests. Following World War I, as automobiles became increasingly available and affordable for American families, Forest Service leaders recognized the public's growing interest in recreation on national forest land. Congress established the management of outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife as the multiple use purposes of the national forests. Recreational visits to America's national forests have increased significantly over the years. In 1924, there were 4,660,300 total recreational visits, and in 1996, national forests received 341 million visitor days of recreational use, involving such activities as hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, and horsepacking.

Policies for wildlife management in the Forest Service have evolved over time. Aldo Leopold laid the foundation for wildlife management while working for the agency from 1909 to 1924. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 requires the Forest Service to conduct its planning to ensure a diversity of plant and animal species.

As of 2005, the United States had 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and 222 research and experimental forests, as well as other areas of special interest, covering more than 192 million acres of public land. The Forest Service employs 30,000 people and manages the national forests for a number of uses, including recreation, timber, wilderness, minerals, water, grazing, fish and wildlife. The history of the Forest Service is long and remarkable. The agency celebrated its 100th anniversary in February 2005.

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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan.
On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, wh...