Professionalism versus Politics

The Century-Long Battle over National Forest Policy

Tom M. Koontz and Christean Jenkins


Professionalism in government administration is the idea that government employees will apply their expert knowledge and skills neutrally in the face of competing interests. Professionalism has long had an uneasy relationship with the rough-and-tumble world of politics. The US Constitution allows the president to appoint officers to help execute the laws. This power of appointment came to be known as the spoils system (“to the victor go the spoils”), after newly elected President Andrew Jackson replaced a large number of federal agency employees with his supporters in 1829. Under the spoils system, rather than neutral application of the law, personnel serving in the executive branch support the president’s political agenda.

But staffing government agencies with political supporters rather than trained professionals can make agencies less competent. This was particularly problematic as industrialization and modernization in the United States made administration tasks more specialized and required particular skill sets. By the late nineteenth century, calls for reform led to the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. This law created the US Civil Service Commission to establish rules for merit-based hiring and firing, and it allowed the president to decide which positions would be subject to the act. Initially, only 10% of federal agency positions were covered, but this was an important first step in creating the professional civil service we see today (Our Documents 2019).

As the Pendleton Act was starting to take hold, the US federal government was setting aside millions of acres of forested land in the West, demarcating it in forest reserves rather than transferring it to private ownership. The spoils system meant that administrative positions in the bureaucracy were filled not by professional experts based on merit, but by supporters of winning candidates based on loyalty. As McCarthy (1992, p. 187) noted, timber agents in charge of managing the forest reserves were “either spoilsmen or appointees of spoilsmen—watchmakers, bookkeepers, veterinarians, saloon operators, protegees of eastern party bosses—whose primary goal was personal gain and not forest protection.”

Criticisms of the spoils system, and the power wielded by political party leaders and corporations, grew into the Progressive reform movement at the dawn of the twentieth century. Reformers championed direct democracy (including citizen initiatives and the election of US senators), breaking up corporate monopolies, and professionalization of management. These causes were epitomized in two individuals whose efforts would change the trajectory of federal forest management for the next century, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. These men put in motion a long-standing tension between professionalism and politics that is visible today, even as prominent forest issues have grown from timber harvesting and fires to include environmental protection and global climate change.

To understand the tension between professionalism and politics in the context of public forest policy, we begin with the origin of public forest lands and the agency charged with managing most of them, the US Forest Service. A brief history of the agency and its management of national forests describes the creation of these forests for conservation, including the role of fire in garnering political support while promoting professional management. The Forest Service grew and evolved its professional forestry practices to address increasing demands for timber and other uses following World War II. But by the end of the twentieth century, the traditionally timber-dominant focus of national forest policy had given way, through the politics of lawmaking and litigation, to ecosystem management. More recently, fire and climate change challenges have highlighted complementarities and tensions between professionalism and politics.

Creation of National Forests for Conservation

Following US independence in 1776, the young nation began westward expansion through wars, treaties, and land purchases. As soon as these lands were acquired, efforts were underway to transfer them out of the public domain and into private ownership. National leaders valued the revenue that land sales could provide for the government. In addition, putting acreage into private hands promoted economic development and western settlement. Starting in 1862, several laws created programs to give or sell land to settlers who promised to inhabit, irrigate, or otherwise improve it. The most famous of these, the Homestead Act of 1862, granted 160 acres to any citizen willing to settle the land and cultivate it for at least five years. Nearly 300 million acres were transferred under this law, mostly in the eastern United States, where fertile lands made 160 acres sufficient for successful farming (Cubbage et al. 2017). Larger allocations were made in the arid West under laws such as the Desert Land Sales Act. Other laws granted land to railroad companies in exchange for building tracks across the continent. Finally, states received a portion of federal lands within their borders at statehood. Over the years, settlers and railroad companies received title to many western lands viewed as favorable for trade and settlement, yet hundreds of millions of acres remained unclaimed.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, there was growing concern that too much land was ending up in the hands of large corporate syndicates and monopolies rather than yeoman farmers. Timber operators had practiced “cut and run” logging for decades, leaving unproductive, denuded landscapes in their wake. Writers such as George Perkins Marsh identified environmental harms, and concern grew that the country would face severe shortages of wood. Areas east of the Mississippi River saw their forest cover reduced from 70% to 20% (MacCleery 2011). The Progressive reform movement was raising awareness of this and other dangers of unbridled capitalism. In response, Congress passed the General Revision Act of 1891, authorizing the president to set apart and reserve forest land in the public domain. These forest reserves would not be sold to private owners; rather, they would be conserved in perpetuity for the benefit of all Americans.

But reserving lands as public domain does not determine how to manage them. By 1897, nearly forty million acres of forest lands had been reserved under the General Revision Act (Cubbage et al. 2017). Management direction was established with the Organic Act of 1897, which authorized the secretary of the interior to manage forest reserves for three purposes: (1) preserve and protect the lands, (2) secure favorable water flows, and (3) furnish a continuous supply of timber for the people of the United States.

As the national government began engaging in forest reserve management, President Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901. An avid outdoorsman and hunter, Roosevelt championed the conservation of natural resources. He found a like-minded conservationist and close confidante in Gifford Pinchot, an American who studied scientific forestry in France and became a fellow member of the Boone & Crockett Club, a leading conservation organization. Pinchot served as chief of the fledgling Division of Forestry in the US Department of Interior starting in 1898, championing scientific forestry in the national interest. After battling political barriers to scientific forestry in the Department of Interior, he gained a transfer of his agency to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1905. The newly positioned agency was renamed the US Forest Service, and Pinchot was its first chief. As he built the Forest Service to manage the nation’s forest reserves (now called national forests), Pinchot personally recruited like-minded foresters from the Yale School of Forestry to join the agency. With a focus on professionalism and science, the Forest Service enjoyed high morale and unity of purpose.

Outside the agency, the new Forest Service struggled to gain sufficient congressional budgets to manage millions of acres of national forests. In 1907, opponents were able to remove the president’s authority through General Revision Act to designate lands as national forest, with an amendment tacked on to a spending bill. The Forest Service budget was squeezed so tight that Pinchot used his salary to meet payroll for some of his employees, and funding for maintenance and management was routinely denied (Egan 2009). By 1910, the agency faced persistent attacks from politicians and land barons who wanted to disband the agency and transfer lands to private ownership as a means to increase timber. But help was on the way, ironically, from the forest itself in the form of catastrophic wildfires.

The summer of 1910 saw drought conditions across the West, including forested areas of Idaho, Montana, and Washington. Thousands of small fires flared in the Bitterroot Mountains in August. Nearly ten thousand men from across the country were gathered to fight the fires, but windy conditions overwhelmed their efforts. A roaring inferno engulfed three million acres in two days, killing eighty-seven people and sending smoke as far east as New York (Egan 2009).

In the aftermath of these fires, Pinchot argued for greater resources and the opportunity to add national forests in the East, to better conserve them. Public sentiment was with him, and the Weeks Act of 1911 authorized the secretary of agriculture to purchase forestland from private owners in order to protect streams and headwaters in the eastern United States. Also that year, Congress doubled the money in the Forest Service budget for roads and trails, something Pinchot had been requesting for years. It put the young agency on firm footing as a powerful steward of the nation’s public forests. It also led to the agency’s “10:00 a.m.” policy, which was to put out any wildfire by ten o’clock the next morning (Manning 2018). While this heightened suppression reduced tree losses to wildfire in the short term, in the long run it caused large fuel buildup and set the stage for increased wildfires that we deal with today.

Growth and Evolution of National Forest Policy

The growing Forest Service applied scientific forestry techniques to the national forests. As Pinchot argued, the aim was to provide the “greatest good, for the greatest number, in the long run.” But the balance of competing uses began to tilt heavily toward timber production, especially as timber demand skyrocketed with World War II and the postwar boom years. Soldiers returning home sparked rapid economic growth, including home construction. To meet rising timber demand, the Forest Service applied large-scale techniques such as hillside terracing, clear-cutting, and increased mechanization.

Even as timber demand rose, so did recreational use of national forests. An expanded highway system and growth of automobiles gave urbanites ready access to far-flung national forests for weekend getaways and family vacations. These additional uses occurred alongside the increasing timber cutting as well as long-standing uses by ranchers, hunters, fishermen, prospectors, and the original directive to protect watersheds from excessive erosion and flooding. The Forest Service saw its role as providing multiple uses for many different interests; it was the “can-do” organization (Dunsky and Steinke 2005).

As timber and nontimber uses increased, some forest visitors began questioning Forest Service management priorities. Why, they asked, were large swaths of forested hillsides being clear-cut? What happened to favorite patches of wildlife habitat? Such questions were met with Forest Service efforts to convince the public that the agency was the expert and knew what is was doing (Koontz 2007). As Pinchot had established decades before, the agency was confident in its decisions and determined not to be influenced by the uninformed opinions of politicians and the public (Kaufman 1960).

But the Forest Service was not independent from politics. The politics of timber positioned the agency between congressional appropriations committees, timber industry, and timber-dependent rural communities. Hoberg (2001, p. 57) describes this as the “traditional timber regime” of mutually reinforcing preference for higher timber harvesting. Members of Congress gave the agency sufficient budget to conduct timber sales, the timber industry supported these congressmen in their reelection bids, and local communities who enjoyed steady jobs in the woods reelected these congressmen. In addition, the Twenty-Five Percent Fund Act of 1908 required the agency to share 25% of its revenue from timber sales with the state in which the forest is located, to be used to fund county roads and schools. This further boosted local support for timber harvesting. Timber harvest levels ratcheted up (see fig. 4.1). Because timber production was part of the agency employees’ shared view of professionalism, they did not see tension with politics—at least not yet.

Timber harvested from national forests, 1905-2017.
Figure 4.1. Timber harvested from national forests, 1905-2017. Sold data not available before 1940. Source: US Forest Service (2018).

Although the timber industry and many timber-dependent communities supported the Forest Service’s heavy timber emphasis, the chorus of voices calling for greater environmental protection grew louder. When the agency seemed unwilling to listen, critics turned to politics to force change. They pushed for and won a raft of environmental protection laws in the 1970s to constrain the agency’s actions, including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Forest Management Act. These laws led the Forest Service to hire a more diverse set of personnel, with professional expertise beyond the traditional field of silviculture (timber management). For example, by 1981, silviculturalists were in the minority, joined by wildlife biologists, engineers, hydrologists, landscape architects, and planners (Tipple and Wellman 1991). The laws included procedural requirements prescribing how forest managers were to make decisions, what items must be included in planning, where clear-cutting was allowed, and which species to protect. In other words, the laws constrained the agency managers’ ability to manage forests according to their professional judgment.

The Forest Service was further constrained by the need to defend its actions in court. The new laws of the 1970s became powerful tools for environmental groups to litigate Forest Service actions. The number of court cases against the agency rose sevenfold in fifteen years (Jones and Taylor 1995). The biggest litigation of all was the battle over the northern spotted owl, a rare bird inhabiting old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. This region accounted for a large share of the agency’s timber sales, and a court ruling in 1989 halted timber harvesting over millions of acres of northern spotted owl habitat. The courts ruled that the agency had failed to follow requirements of the National Forest Management Act and Endangered Species Act.

With timber sales dramatically reduced, the Forest Service shifted toward an “ecosystem management” paradigm in the 1990s. This approach put scientific management front and center but tempered it with stakeholder collaboration. And it was a new kind of science—managers integrated scientific information across disciplines and cooperated across agency boundaries to learn about the ecosystem. Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson announced in 1992 that national forest management would be based on the ecosystem management approach. In 1997, a US Department of Agriculture committee of scientists developed a strategic plan for national forest management. This plan emphasized ecological constraints as primary and that economic and commodity uses were only to be pursued within those constraints (Hoberg 2001). By 2003, most Forest Service employees reported that the principles of ecosystem management were being successfully implemented (Butler and Koontz 2005).

Ecosystem management changed the orientation of national forest policy toward the health of the ecosystem and away from timber maximization (Honick 2015). The decline in timber sales was met with a decrease in political support for agency budget requests. Without the “traditional timber regime” (Hoberg 2001) to encourage congressional appropriations based on timber sales, the agency had to be attentive to the shifting political winds to make the case for its budgets. Once again, the biggest opportunity for the agency to gain budget resources came from the forest itself, in the form of catastrophic wildfires.

National Forest Priorities in the New Century:
A Fire-Dominated Landscape

In 2005, the Forest Service celebrated its one hundredth anniversary. A century after its founding by Gifford Pinchot, who placed the agency on a solid footing of professionalism and scientific forestry, the Forest Service inhabited a shifting landscape. A diverse collection of agency professionals, representing a variety of scientific and other fields, struggled to find unity of purpose. Multiple competing stakeholders, armed with laws prescribing forester actions and lawyers to back them up, pressured the agency to advance their particular visions of forest management, while the agency tried to project an image of neutral professionalism. As one forester quipped, “if everybody is mad at us, we must be doing something right” (Dunsky and Steinke 2005). But as the agency faced conflicting stakeholder demands, budget challenges, and lack of personnel unity, employee morale tumbled. By 2009, the agency ranked 206th out of 216 federal agencies in overall employee satisfaction (Brown et al. 2010).

Over the past two decades, wildfire management has become a dominant force shaping Forest Service policy. Buildup of fuels in the forests, aided by the Forest Service’s long-standing emphasis on fire suppression, has fed large wildfires across the West. With more people moving to the wildland-urban interface, in harm’s way of wildfires, political demands have grown to prioritize firefighting. In 2000, the National Fire Plan was developed in response to an intense fire season, along with a ten-year strategy and implementation plan to ensure “sufficient firefighting readiness” by “working with communities to reduce hazardous fuel buildups, restoring fire-affected ecosystems, and equipping communities with wildland firefighting tools for reduced fire risk” (US Forest Service 2002). In 2003, President Bush signed into law the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. This law reduced procedural requirements for the Forest Service in vegetation management of fire-prone areas, and it authorized up to $760 million per year for the agency to conduct projects related to fire safety in the wildland-urban interface (Steelman and DuMond 2009). These projects included expedited timber harvests to reduce fuel loads, a flashpoint for environmental opposition. But timber harvest volume remained at less than one-fifth of the peak harvest volumes of 1987 (see fig. 4.1 above).

The dominance of fire management can be seen in agency staffing and budgets. Staffing for fire more than doubled, from 5,700 employees in 1998 to more than 12,000 in 2015. In contrast, staff for land management fell from 18,000 to less than 11,000 in the same period (US Forest Service 2015b). The agency’s annual expenditures on wildland fire management, compared to other categories, is shown in figure 4.2. Wildland fire management spending has consistently dwarfed all other categories, including all funds spent to manage the national forests. The increasing cost of fire has meant borrowing, dipping into emergency funds, and cutting funds from other budget areas such as facility maintenance, research, and fisheries and wildlife. For fiscal year 2019, $2.5 billion of the requested $4.77 billion budget is anticipated to go toward wildland fire management, and at the current pace the agency is expected to spend two-thirds of its budget on wildland fire by 2025 (US Forest Service 2015b).

Wildfire policy often pits professional expertise against politics. A growing number of Forest Service professionals call for using fire science to reduce threats, rather than focusing on extinguishing all fires. This includes the science of hazardous fuels reduction, especially prescribed burns that reduce fuel loads in a controlled setting. Forest ecologists point out the important role fire plays in some ecological communities and claim that prescribed burns can reduce occurrences of catastrophic wildfires. But use of this management tool is limited by politics. Local communities fear prescribed burns getting out of control, and they dislike the smoke (Gillis 2017). Existing laws, including the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, limit prescribed burns, which worsen air quality and harm species in the short term (Graw 2017). Today, prescribed fires make up less than 10% of the acres treated for fuel reduction (Graw 2017). But efforts are underway to increase fuel reduction measures. In 2018, Vicki Christianson, interim chief of the Forest Service, stated the agency is changing its approach to wildfire management. She mentioned efforts to overcome the “cultural barriers” in the West against prescribed fire, and barriers from agency metrics that measure the percentage of fires that are quickly suppressed (Schick 2018a). At the same time, the agency is rolling out a fire risk assessment analytic tool using Geographic Information Systems, vegetation maps, and population data to better calculate where to focus their efforts (Schick 2018b). Also, Congress changed how funding is allocated for wildfires, through the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act of 2009 and passed a budget in 2018 that changed funding for wildfire suppression in order to free up funds for fuel reduction, including prescribed burns (Profita and Mapes 2018). Thus professionalism and politics are converging to address the wildfire challenge, although the degree to which the public will support more prescribed burns remains to be seen.

US Forest Service spending by broad category in nominal dollars, 2003-2017 (not adjusted for inflation).
Figure 4.2. US Forest Service spending by broad category in nominal dollars, 2003-2017 (not adjusted for inflation). Source: US Forest Service (2005a, 2005b, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015a, 2016, 2017b).

As shown in figure 4.2 above, wildfire management accounts for the lion’s share of Forest Service budget expenditures. The second-highest share is spent on the National Forest System category, which accounts for activities on the nation’s 154 national forests. The breakdown of this category is shown in figure 4.3. The largest National Forest System expenditure is for forest products, including timber. This amount has risen 37% in nominal dollars between 2003 and 2018, which is on par with inflation during this time period, thus a stable amount in real dollars, even as the volume of timber sold rose over 75%. The agency argues that spending on forest products is a means to improve watershed quality, wildlife habitat, and the health of landscapes while also reducing fuel loads and providing economic opportunity to communities. Next come recreation, heritage, and wilderness. Expenditures in nominal dollars have remained relatively flat over the past fifteen years, failing to keep up with inflation or with the additional five million annual recreational visits over this time period (US Forest Service 2017a). Similarly, expenditures on vegetation and watershed management as well as wildlife and fisheries habitat management have not kept up with inflation. Finally, minerals and geology management received a boost starting in 2006, reflecting efforts to develop natural resources to gain independence from the importation of goods from foreign countries as part of the ongoing War on Terror.

While figures 4.2 and 4.3 show how the Forest Service allocates funding internally, the agency’s external political environment is visible in annual congressional budgets. The Forest Service is primarily funded through discretionary funds, money that comes from Congress through the annual appropriations process. The process begins with the president submitting a request to the House and the Senate. Within the House and Senate, a congressional budget is decided upon, and then appropriations committees determine how funds will be allocated among federal agencies. Other federal money comes from mandatory spending (predetermined amounts previously decided upon by Congress through legislation) and supplemental funds. If discretionary and mandatory funds are exhausted, federal agencies can request additional money from the federal government to help cover remaining costs. These additional funds are designated as supplemental funds and sometimes as emergency funds in budget reporting, which is frequently used for wildfire suppression (Hoover 2018). Another type of supplemental funding is cap funding, which is when a cap, or designated set amount, is placed on an account and additional funding is provided from a separate account to pay for costs that accrue past the set amount. Cap adjustments have been used for suppression expenses to reduce the amount of money pulled from nonfire accounts.

National Forest System spending in nominal dollars, 2003-2017 (not adjusted for inflation).
Figure 4.3. National Forest System spending in nominal dollars, 2003-2017 (not adjusted for inflation). Source: US Forest Service (2005a, 2005b, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015a, 2016, 2017b).

Over the past decade, discretionary appropriations to the agency have fluctuated between $4.5 billion and $5.7 billion (fig. 4.4), including peaks in 2010 and 2016 when the agency received additional money for wildland fire management (Hoover 2017). These numbers are nominal values; adjusted for inflation, they represent a declining budget over time, with the 2017 budget less than the 2008 budget in real dollars, even as timber sold, recreational visits, and wildfire expenditures increased.

Annual congressional appropriations to the US Forest Service in nominal dollars, 2008-2017.
Figure 4.4. Annual congressional appropriations to the US Forest Service in nominal dollars, 2008-2017. Note that data for 2017 were not finalized at time of this figure’s original publication. The actual amount for 2017, according to the agency’s FY 2019 budget justification, was Discretionary $5,631, Mandatory $444, and Supplemental/Cap Adjustment $0 (in millions of dollars). Source: US Forest Service (2016).

Climate Change Policy in the Forest Service

No review of Forest Service professionalism and politics would be complete without discussing climate change. Climate change affects conditions in our national forests in many ways. Perhaps most salient is the greater frequency and intensity of drought, which makes forests more susceptible to wildfires. Many national forests are located in mountainous regions, where climate change has reduced snowpack and altered water flows. As climate changes, plant and animal species range is altered. In addition, warmer temperatures enable the spread of insects, pests, and disease that would otherwise be held in check. These damages can cause large-scale tree die-offs, which add to fuel buildup that drives wildfires. Conversely, forest management can affect greenhouse gas emissions. Trees remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, and management practices to promote faster tree growth, over more acreage, can help sequester carbon.

In February 2008, under the Bush administration, Forest Service Chief Gail Kimball called on agency leaders to develop a strategic framework to address climate change. This framework, drafted later that year, outlined seven goals, including reducing greenhouse gases through land management, using science to increase understanding of future implications of climate change, and integrating climate change into agency policy. To assist in implementation, recommended actions accompanied each goal. Two years later, under the Obama administration, the USDA also developed a strategic plan in line with the goals described by the Forest Service. Using these frameworks, a roadmap focusing on assessment, engagement, and management was published in 2010 to help with the implementation of the agency’s climate change-related goals. In conjunction with this roadmap, administrators developed a scorecard to track implementation on all national forests and grasslands by 2015. But a 2017 Office of Inspector General’s report on the roadmap and scorecard concluded that the agency lacked outcome-based performance measures, and it was unclear the degree to which the agency had met its climate change goals (US Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General 2017).

Forest Service scientists have been researching climate change for more than twenty years. As of 2016, the agency included 150 scientists in the Research and Development Division studying many aspects of climate change. The Forest Service has built an infrastructure to support climate change management and research, including an Office of Sustainability and Climate, and a Climate Change Resource Center. Under the Trump administration, web pages for these offices are still present, but some have not been updated; for example, the Office of Sustainability and Climate website ( accessed in August 2018 indicated it was last updated February 18, 2016, and the most recent scorecard report is for 2016.

The agency’s climate change efforts are reflected in the annual budget justifications that accompany the agency’s requests for funding. These requests are political documents in that they make an argument to the president and Congress about why the agency should receive its requested amounts. The annual requests are made prior to the fiscal year for which they are requesting—for example, fiscal year 2011 runs from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011—and the request was made February 2010. These documents are typically 300-600 pages in length. Figure 4.5 shows the number of times the terms “climate change,” “global climate,” and “global warming” are used in each request document over the past sixteen years. The flurry of climate planning within the agency starting in 2008 was reflected in a rise in frequency of the terms “climate change,” “global climate,” and “global warming” in external communications with Congress. There were two peak years of use of the terms, in early 2011 for fiscal year 2012 and in early 2016 for fiscal year 2017. At the start of the Trump administration, use of the terms fell sharply for the 2018 and 2019 budget requests.

Climate change efforts in the Forest Service suggest that professionalism has largely prevailed over politics. Agency scientists have examined climate change impacts for the past two decades, and agency administrators explicitly sought to incorporate it into management starting in 2008. These efforts continued across the Bush and Obama presidencies, and as control of Congress shifted from Democrats to Republicans. Under the Trump administration, as climate change has been openly questioned and many federal efforts to address it have been dismantled, elements of the Forest Service’s climate change policy infrastructure remain. But administration web pages have been unevenly updated since 2016, and the significant drop in use of the terms “climate change,” “global climate,” and “global warming” in the 2018 and 2019 budget requests suggest the agency is downplaying its efforts on this front.

Number of times the terms “climate change,” “global climate,” or “global warming” appear in US Forest Service annual budget request documents.
Figure 4.5. Number of times the terms “climate change,” “global climate,” or “global warming” appear in US Forest Service annual budget request documents. Source: US Forest Service (2004, 2005a, 2005b, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015a, 2016, 2017b, 2019).


The Forest Service began with a struggle between professional forestry and political influence. As Congress sought to reduce the reach of the Forest Service’s control over lands, Pinchot and Roosevelt sought more men and money to manage the forests scientifically. Catastrophic wildfires of 1910 delivered support for the agency to manage more lands, and it did so under the banner of professional forestry and multiple use. The agency applied its can-do spirit to tackling fire, working to suppress all wildfires. As the “greatest good for the greatest number” came to mean heavy timber harvesting, interests of Congress and the Forest Service aligned, and tensions between professionalism and politics subsided.

But tensions resurfaced with the dawn of the environmental era, as nontimber stakeholders increasingly questioned the Forest Service’s management choices. These stakeholders prevailed upon Congress in the 1970s to pass several laws protecting the environment and reducing the agency’s autonomy to manage as it saw fit. The agency was forced to add a multitude of diverse voices and professions into its once-unified organization, and by the 1990s, timber harvests from national forests were reduced to a fraction of their high-water mark. Professionalism came to include not only timber production, but also ecological protection and the new paradigm of ecosystem management. It also embraced fire science and ecology, which stressed the beneficial role of fire on the landscape. Prescribed fire began to be used as a tool to reduce fuel loads, yet public opinion and politics emphasized fire suppression over prevention. Finally, climate change science began to be incorporated explicitly into Forest Service planning more than a decade ago, but such efforts appear to be less explicit in the Trump administration.

As the Forest Service embarks on its second century of managing the national forests, its cadre of professionals continues to pursue scientific management. Meanwhile, the politics of federal funding have buffeted the agency, which shoulders the weight of more demands even as its budget has not kept pace with inflation. The biggest component of its funding at present is wildfire management, a political issue that seems to be bridging the partisan divide. Under the Trump presidency, agency scientists continue to address climate change, although less explicitly—budget requests under Trump seldom refer to climate change, and public engagement through the website has diminished. Thus the balance between professionalism and politics will likely continue to evolve.


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US Forest Service. 2011. Fiscal Year 2012 Budget Justification with Errata. Washington, DC: US Forest Service.

US Forest Service. 2012. Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Justification. Washington, DC: US Forest Service.

US Forest Service. 2013. Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Justification. Washington, DC: US Forest Service.

US Forest Service. 2014. Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Justification. Washington, DC: US Forest Service.

US Forest Service. 2015a. Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Justification. Washington, DC: US Forest Service.

US Forest Service. 2015b. The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work. (↵ Return 1) (↵ Return 2)

US Forest Service. 2016. Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Justification. Washington, DC: US Forest Service.

US Forest Service. 2017a. Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Justification. Washington, DC: US Forest Service. (↵ Return)

US Forest Service. 2017b. National Visitor Use Monitoring Survey Results 2016 National Summary Report. Washington, DC: US Forest Service.

US Forest Service. 2018. “FY 1905-2017 National Summary Cut and Sold Data and Graphs.” April 11, 2018.

US Forest Service. 2019. Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Justification. Washington, DC: US Forest Service.


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The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands Copyright © 2020 by Tom M. Koontz and Christean Jenkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.