U.S. Forest Service

U.S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service is a federal agency charged with managing and protecting public lands, especially forests and grasslands.


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NPS Firefighters

Part of maintaining a healthy forest is keeping forest fires in check. That is a role taken on by the U.S. Park Service. Here, firefighters battle the Rim Fire on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, California.

Photograph by by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Part of maintaining a healthy forest is keeping forest fires in check. That is a role taken on by the U.S. Park Service. Here, firefighters battle the Rim Fire on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, California.

In the late 1800s, the United States was growing fast. The nation was selling off publicly owned land to private citizens for farming, ranching, and railroad construction. Most people thought forests could never be used up.

Others, however, contemplated ruined landscapes and worried about the future. In 1897, writing for the Atlantic Monthly, naturalist John Muir lamented, “God has cared for these trees ... but he cannot save them from fools—only Uncle Sam can do that.”

Uncle Sam Protects the Trees

Uncle Sam did try to save the United States' trees. The turn of the century brought a change in public attitudes about clearing large tracts of land. Congress established the U.S. Forest Service as a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1905.

The new federal agency was charged with mapping, maintaining, and protecting forests. Gifford Pinchot, sometimes called “America’s first forester,” headed the new agency. He also helped popularize the word “conservation” to mean wise use of natural resources.

Growing Our National Forests

Initially, the United States had 60 forest reserves—tracts of forested land belonging to the federal government. A little more than a century later, there are 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands. From Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania to Willamette National Forest in Oregon, these reserves add up to about 77 million hectares (190 million acres), an area bigger than the state of Texas.

The mission of the Forest Service has also grown. The agency continues to maintain and protect forests, but many national forests are now “multiple use” areas, managed to protect the fish and wildlife found there, and open to the public for outdoor recreation, including hiking, fishing, and camping.

Besides forests, the agency also manages grasslands where cattle and other livestock may graze. The Forest Service also shares its expertise with individual landowners, states, and with countries all around the world.

More than Forest Management

Forest research is another major activity. The Forest Service Research and Development unit employs 500 researchers at seven research stations and 81 experimental forests. One important area of study is developing new sustainable energy sources. Another is figuring out how to make forests more resilient—able to adapt and keep growing—in the face of climate change.

Smoky Bear and Woodsy Owl

Perhaps the most widely known symbol of the Forest Service is Smoky Bear. The cartoon character, who wears a ranger hat and carries a shovel, was created in 1944 for a campaign to teach the public about preventing harmful forest fires. In 1971, with the rise of the environmental movement, Smoky was joined by Woodsy Owl, whose message is “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute.”

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Roza Kavak
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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