1876 was a fruitful year for the United States. Alexander Graham Bell applied for a telephone patent, the First Transcontinental Railroad’s express train crossed the country in 83 hours and 39 minutes, Colorado was admitted to the Union, and what would eventually become the United States Forest Service was created.
Congress formed the office of “Special Agent in the U.S. Department of Agriculture” in order to determine the quality and conditions of forests across the then 38-state nation. Conservation and preservation of national forest land was still in its infancy, so the main focus of the new service was timber, range, and fire management. By 1905, the United States Forest Service had its current name, and by 1944, they had a “spokesbear.”
Smokey Bear was birthed by the Wartime Advertising Council and the Forest Service in an attempt to reduce the number of forest fires. “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” he told us. The poster was a success and even today it is one of the most recognizable catchphrases in American history.
In doing research for this article, the sheer size of the United States Forest Service was very surprising. They manage 193 million acres of forests, grasslands, and watersheds across United States and its territories. There are several major divisions of the Forest Service, but this article will focus on four of them: Federal Law Enforcement, Fire Management, Rangers and Camping, and Research and Development.
To sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs to present and future generations.
– Forest Service Agency Mission
The U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations (LEI) enforce all the federal laws and regulations that govern all national forest lands and resources, as well as some state laws and regulations. These uniformed and armed officers carry out all the same duties as regular law enforcement, but their primary focus is the protection of natural resources, Service employees and visitors. In addition to this, they investigate criminal activity on forest property that can range from illegal grows and timber harvesting to determining the source of a wildland fire. Because of the varied terrain found in the vast forest system under their jurisdiction, not only do they use the regular LEO vehicles, but also have snowmobiles, dirt bikes, horses, and boats.
The Heart of a Firefighter
Forest Service fire management is no small thing when there are nine different regions and habitats across the country. Their firefighters tackle more than 73,000 wildfires that strike private, state, and federal land in the United States each year. Fighting a wildland fire is significantly different than city/structure fires so the firefighters are trained with tools and equipment designed specifically for forest and grassland terrain. Aerial crews with helicopters, airplanes, and fire retardant assist ground crews on engines and water tenders. These are the “boots on the ground” so to speak that work long hours, in thick smokey conditions, to protect homes, businesses, wild land and animals that are in danger.
You are most likely to encounter a Forest Service Ranger if you are a camping family. Rangers do all sorts of things like running campground facilities, fire prevention, to conservation efforts with industry and the public. Every year the nation’s forests play host to families and friends trying to get back to nature.
Public lands offer more than:
- 150,000 miles of trails
- 10,000 developed recreation sites
- 57,000 miles of streams
- 122 alpine ski areas
- 338,000 heritage sites
- 22 recreation areas
- 11 scenic areas
- 439 wilderness areas
- 122 wild and scenic rivers
Visit Your National Forests – It’s all ours!
The Forest Service website offers many different ways to connect with the land. There is a Destinations tab that helps you search for Forest Service campsites and wilderness areas, and a Guide to Your National Forests that links interactive maps and helps you choose a spot perfect for your needs. Information regarding Recreation Passes, Fee-Free Days, Special-Use and Recreation Permits are all found on the site.
Today, the United States Forest Service is charged with balancing conservation and management of the nation’s forests and resources. The research and development wing of the Service has as one of their goals, “…national energy security, environmental quality, and economic opportunities through sustainable land management, energy production, and conservation.” Their R&D division strives to carefully utilize the resources found in the nation’s forests and grasslands with as little environmental impact as possible. Their scientists also study wildlife, fish, and their habitats to make better decisions on land management and address future or developing concerns.
With 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands to manage, it’s a giant job. More than 80% of the land managed by the United States Forest Service is in the warm and dry western states so every year their firefighters face serious danger. In 2020 alone, almost 4.4 million acres burned in California. While it was interagency cooperation that put the fires out, the immense hard work and sacrifices of the United States Forest Service cannot be overlooked. The men and women in the Thin Red Line stood their ground and saved homes, businesses, forests, wildlife, and the beautiful places we have come to know and love.