What Does The U.S. Forestry Service Do? (Explained)

The U.S. Forest Service is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that manages and protects over 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. Its mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

As one of the largest land management agencies in the world, the U.S. Forest Service plays a vital role in conserving natural resources, supporting outdoor recreation, and managing wildfire risks. With over 35,000 employees, the Forest Service oversees 154 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and hundreds of smaller sites across 44 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

Some of the key responsibilities and services provided by the U.S. Forest Service include:

Fire Management

  • Fighting wildfires and reducing fire risks through fuel reduction, controlled burns, and community outreach. The Forest Service is the nation’s largest wildland firefighting organization.

Conservation & Land Management

  • Protecting and restoring wildlife habitats, wetlands, watersheds, and other ecosystems.
  • Developing land and resource management plans for national forests and grasslands.
  • Monitoring forest health and conducting research.

Providing Public Access & Recreation

  • Managing campgrounds, trails, boat launches, and picnic areas.
  • Issuing permits for activities like hiking, fishing, hunting, and off-roading.
  • Enforcing regulations to protect natural resources and public safety.

Community Assistance

  • Supporting rural development, job creation, and youth engagement through grants, partnerships, and volunteer programs.
  • Working with Native American tribes to protect treaty rights and cultural resources.
  • Providing technical and financial assistance to state and private forest owners.

Clearly, the Forest Service plays a multifaceted role in promoting the health and use of America’s forests for both current and future generations. This article will provide an in-depth look at key Forest Service duties, challenges, and initiatives across its major areas of responsibility. It will also offer tips and resources to assist private landowners and members of the public in supporting the agency’s conservation mission.

Fire Management

Preventing and fighting wildfires is one of the most visible responsibilities of the U.S. Forest Service. With prolonged droughts, climate change, and accumulation of dead vegetation increasing fire risks, the agency’s fire management efforts are more critical than ever.

Firefighting Operations

The Forest Service coordinates firefighting across multiple federal, state and local agencies. When a wildfire breaks out on Forest Service lands, the agency provides the personnel, equipment, and management for the response. Forest Service firefighters are extensively trained and work in hand crews, hotshot crews, smokejumper units, and helicopter crews. In particularly severe fire seasons, the military and international crews may also be called upon.

The Forest Service spent over $3 billion on firefighting in 2021, when over 59,000 wildfires burned across 7 million acres of Forest Service land. The agency has its own fleet of over 1,600 fire engines, hundreds of aircraft, and advanced fire detection and communication technologies. Firefighting bases and lookout towers are located across all national forests.

Fire Prediction, Prevention, and Preparedness

The Forest Service works year-round to reduce wildfire risks through:

  • Fire and weather monitoring systems to predict fire danger.
  • Forest thinning and removal of dead vegetation (“fuel”) through timber sales, mechanical treatments, and prescribed fire.
  • Public education campaigns encouraging fire-safe behavior, creating defensible space, and preventing human-caused ignitions.
  • Training and readiness activities for firefighters including fire simulations and equipment maintenance.
  • Partnerships with state and local agencies to coordinate preparedness and share firefighting resources.

Post-fire Rehabilitation

After a fire occurs, the Forest Service initiates efforts to repair the burned area and prevent further damage. These rehabilitation activities include:

  • Stabilizing soil through mulching, seeding native plants, and installing erosion barriers.
  • Mitigating impacts to water sources and watersheds.
  • Safely removing dead trees and other hazardous fuels.
  • Repairing impacts to wildlife habitats, scenic vistas, recreation sites, roads, and trails.
  • Monitoring ecosystem recovery and conducting restoration treatments as needed over time.
  • Assessing the fire’s cause and how fire management strategies can be improved.

Through coordinated fire management efforts before, during, and after wildfires, the Forest Service works to protect lives, property, and natural resources. But continued drought, climate change impacts, and housing development in fire-prone areas is straining already limited firefighting capacity. Cooperation across all levels of government and increased funding will be key challenges in the years ahead.

Conservation & Land Management

The national forests and grasslands managed by the Forest Service provide habitat for thousands of wildlife species and more than clean air and water—they support the diversity of plant and animal life on the planet. To balance access to resources from forests while conserving their ecosystems, the Forest Service carefully plans and monitors all activities on the land they manage.

Land Management Planning

For each national forest and national grassland, the Forest Service develops a Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) to guide long-term goals, zoning, resource uses, access rules, and environmental protections. These comprehensive plans are updated every 10-15 years with extensive scientific input and public involvement. All permits, activities, and management in a forest must align with its approved LRMP.

Key elements of a forest plan include:

  • Identifying land with wilderness characteristics to recommend for wilderness designation.
  • Zoning land for suitable uses like recreation, wildlife habitat, timber harvest, or mineral development.
  • Assessing resources like watersheds, cultural sites, and endangered species.
  • Setting sustainable limits for activities like grazing, off-roading, and energy development.
  • Modeling impacts of climate change and designing adaptation strategies.

Ecosystem & Wildlife Conservation

To protect ecosystems under their management, the Forest Service:

  • Restores wildlife habitats like wetlands, old growth forests, and streams.
  • Monitors threatened and endangered species and develops conservation strategies.
  • Manages wilderness areas and sensitive watersheds using primitive methods.
  • Studies impacts of climate change and invasive pests. Develops adaptation strategies.
  • Partners with state wildlife agencies, private landowners, and nonprofits on shared conservation goals.
  • Creates wildlife movement corridors across jurisdictions and protects key winter habitat.
  • Assesses all projects like prescribed burns, timber harvests, and new recreation sites for potential ecosystem impacts.

Watershed Management & Restoration

As key sources of public drinking water, watersheds on Forest Service lands are carefully monitored and protected. The agency works to:

  • Reduce erosion and maintain water quality through trail construction standards, limits on off-roading, and road maintenance.
  • Restore damaged watersheds from overgrazing, contamination, or improper logging using native vegetation and erosion control structures.
  • Study water flows, quality standards, flood risks, and changing climate impacts through stream gauges and sensor networks.
  • Design culverts, bridges, and stream crossings to allow fish passage and withstand major floods.
  • Coordinate with the EPA, USGS, and local partners on clean-up of polluted watersheds like those affected by mining.

Through science-based land management guided by forest plans, the Forest Service balances human uses with sustainable ecosystems, wildlife conservation, and watershed protection. Collaboration across landowners and educating recreation users about responsible use are key to minimizing human damage.

Providing Public Access & Recreation

National forests and grasslands belong to all Americans—they are lands set aside for public use and enjoyment. The Forest Service’s recreation program oversees access, facilities, and visitor engagement across these sites. This helps support local tourism economies and allows families to connect with nature.

Campgrounds & Day Use Areas

For overnight visits, the Forest Service manages over 130,000 campsites at 455 campgrounds, providing access to bathrooms, potable water, picnic tables, tent pads, fire rings or grills, trash service, and parking spurs. Larger campgrounds may have RV dump stations. Campground hosts are on site seasonally to maintain facilities, register guests, and provide visitor information.

Many sites can be reserved in advance through Recreation.gov while others are first-come, first-served. Day use areas offer parking, picnicking, trailheads, scenic stops, visitor centers, and boat launches for the public.

Trails System

Across national forests and grasslands, the Forest Service maintains over 159,000 miles of trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, ATVs, and snowmobiles. This trails system provides access to scenic landscapes, recreation destinations, and backcountry areas for all abilities. Trails range from fully accessible paved paths to remote routes accessible only on foot or horseback.

Popular long-distance trails managed in part by the Forest Service include the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Florida National Scenic Trail along with countless local trails that wind through national forest lands. Detailed trail maps and conditions are posted online and at ranger stations.

Wildlife Viewing & Fall Colors

Many national forests offer exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities, especially for rare or endemic species. Forest biologists conduct surveys to track populations of vulnerable wildlife and develop viewing opportunities that minimize disturbance. From migrating salmon in Alaska to the red-cockaded woodpecker in Southern pine forests, iconic wildlife can be spotted in their natural habitats.

Fall foliage viewing is also a popular draw, especially for hardwood forests in the Northeast and high-elevation sites out West. Forest Service facilities like scenic byways, vista points, and photography platforms make fall colors accessible. Events like guided walks showcase timing of peak conditions.

Permits & Passes

To balance recreational access with ecological protections, many activities in national forests require permits issued by the Forest Service:

  • Cutting personal Christmas trees or collecting firewood requires a permit stipulating locations and restrictions.
  • Hunting and fishing are managed in conjunction with state wildlife agencies through special access permits.
  • Guiding hunters, anglers, or whitewater groups requires a commercial permit.
  • Off-roading on motorcycles, ATVs, or four-wheel drive vehicles is just allowed on designated routes under a permit system.
  • Special event permits are required for group activities like runs, charity events, or survival games with a safety review.

Passes like the America the Beautiful annual interagency pass or the Senior Pass provide discounts on camping, tours, and other amenities at Forest Service sites.

Interpretive Programs & Environmental Education

Helping visitors of all ages appreciate forest ecology, history and responsible recreation is a major emphasis. Programs like campfire talks, guided walks, and ranger stations teach ‘leave no trace’ principles. School programs bring science curriculum outdoors through activities like bird banding and macroinvertebrate study. Youth programs like Job Corps and conservation corps engage teens in stewardship.


Private companies can bid on contracts to run marinas, stores, restaurants, stables, cabins, ski areas, and other services on Forest Service lands under permit and agency oversight. These concessioners expand recreation opportunities for the public through their expertise.

The Forest Service’s vast recreation program makes experiencing the beauty of nature accessible to all while minimizing human impacts. Visitor education and site-specific permits help balance recreational demand with sustainable management.

Community Assistance

While managing national forests and grasslands is the core mission, the Forest Service also provides technical expertise and financial assistance to states, municipalities, tribal nations, private landowners and non-profits to advance shared conservation goals.

State & Private Forestry

Through State & Private Forestry programs, the Forest Service provides:

  • Funding and expertise to state forestry agencies for wildfire prevention, forest health monitoring, reforestation, and water quality protection on state and private lands.
  • Financial and technical assistance to private forest landowners for sustainable timber management, conservation practices, and restoration projects like replanting after floods.
  • Resources for urban forestry programs in municipalities to maintain trees along streets and in parks through inventories, planning, tree care workshops, and software tools.
  • Technology transfer andSeed collection to provide genetically appropriate tree species to state nurseries for reforestation needs.
  • Mapping and biological control methods to detect and manage outbreaks of invasive pests like emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle, and hemlock woolly adelgid.

Rural Development

The Forest Service promotes sustainable rural economies and strong communities through:

  • Providing reliable, good-paying jobs in rural areas related to land management.
  • Supporting locally-driven development councils to diversify economies by highlighting cultural assets and existing resources.
  • Developing mutually beneficial partnerships with local governments, nonprofits, and landowner associations.
  • Funding facilities and infrastructure like schools, libraries, hospitals in communities near national forests.
  • Working with partners to expand outdoor recreation in support of tourism.

Youth & Volunteer Engagement

To broaden public investment in the stewardship of forests, the agency engages volunteers and youth through:

  • Conservation education programs reaching over 500,000 students per year with hands-on learning experiences focused on forest ecology, water studies, wildlife monitoring, and land management.
  • Volunteer projects focused on trail building/maintenance, habitat restoration, species monitoring, and cleanup efforts. Over 95,000 volunteers contribute more than 2 million hours annually.
  • Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers providing vocational training, education, counseling and real-world paid work experience for youth on Forest Service projects.
  • High school and college internships as well as the Youth Conservation Corps for teens.

Tribal Relations

The Forest Service consults with Native American tribes in protecting cultural resources, reserved treaty rights like hunting/fishing in usual and accustomed places, and sacred sites on Forest Service lands. Agreements are developed to give tribes a substantive role in managing areas of cultural significance.

Through community assistance programs, the Forest Service helps foster forest stewardship and strengthen communities beyond just the federal lands under its jurisdiction. Private landowners, volunteers, local youth, agencies, and tribes become partners in conservation.

Key Initiatives and Challenges

While staying focused on its core mission areas, the Forest Service must also continually adapt management to address emerging challenges, improve inclusion, and operate more efficiently. Some key initiatives and challenges include:

Adapting to Climate Change: Forest management must factor in rising temperatures, increased fire risks, drought, invasive pests, and other climate impacts. The Forest Service is studying how plant and animal ranges may shift and developing adaptation strategies.

Improving Inclusion: The agency aims to recruit and retain more women and minorities as employees and engage broader representation through community outreach to become welcoming to all people.

Modernizing Management: Through expanded use of remote sensing data, analytics, drones, collaboration software and other new technologies, the Forest Service is working to map resources, share data, streamline operations and improve decision making.

Addressing Maintenance Backlogs: With aging infrastructure but limited budgets, the agency has billions in deferred maintenance needs. New funding sources and partnerships with volunteer groups are partial solutions.

Leveraging Limited Budgets: With many competing priorities, the Forest Service must maximize limited budgets through improved cost efficiency, shared stewardship agreements, and exploring new financing strategies.

Navigating Complex Laws: Complying with wide-ranging environmental laws, planning requirements, restrictions on timber harvest, and litigation risk poses management hurdles requiring creative problem solving.

Supporting Rural Economies: The Forest Service must balance allowing sustainable resource use with minimizing ecosystem damage to support rural jobs in timber, mining, ranching and recreation.

Through science-based, collaborative management led by dedicated personnel, the Forest Service works to meet these challenges while achieving its mission. But support from elected officials, landowner partners, recreation user groups, conservation organizations, and other stakeholders is crucial to providing the resources needed to manage our shared national forests and grasslands for the benefit of all.

Tips for Supporting the U.S. Forest Service

Every American has a stake in the future of our public lands managed by the Forest Service. Here are tips that individuals, private landowners, recreation groups, nonprofits, agencies, and businesses can follow to support the conservation of national forests and grasslands:

Volunteer on trail building and restoration projects, species monitoring, campground hosting, or administrative tasks at ranger district offices.

Donate to nonprofits supporting Forest Service projects or your favorite recreation sites or consider leaving a bequest.

Provide comments on proposed forest management plans with your perspective as stakeholders. Engage in the process.

Follow rules and teach others to prevent wildfires, avoid damaging behaviors, pack out waste, and respect wildlife.

Partner with the Forest Service on research, monitoring, youth engagement, or sharing resources.

Advocate for sufficient funding and personnel to achieve the agency’s mission through contacting elected officials and engaging in the public lands discussion.

Invest in rural communities near national forests through business partnerships, sustainable forestry, or joining collaborative groups.

Be an active steward by modeling sustainability practices like recycling, conserving water, creating defensible space around your home, or planting native species. Small acts add up.

Connect youth to nature and Forest Service career paths through volunteering, job shadows, school events, and community activities like Junior Forest Ranger programs.

Support policies that balance conservation, recreation access, and sustainable resource use to meet diverse needs. Avoid polarized extremes. Seek common ground.

Talk to a ranger to learn about sites in your area and how the public can best help the Forest Service achieve its vital mission for us all.

The U.S. Forest Service manages shared lands for current and future generations. Being an informed friend to the Forest Service and promoting policies that ensure adequate funding to manage public lands sustainably are the most impactful ways we can help these stewards of America’s forests thrive. Our actions matter.

Forest Service Regions

To manage national forests and grasslands across the country, the Forest Service divides lands into 9 geographic regions, listed below.

Northern Region (Region 1)

This region includes 25 million acres across 5 states in the Rocky Mountains and northern Great Plains. Major forests include Flathead, Kootenai, Lewis & Clark, Lolo, and Helena. Key issues are wildfire management and logging/grazing balances.

Rocky Mountain Region (Region 2)

Stretching across Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, this region contains over 22 million acres including forests like Roosevelt, Pike, Medicine Bow, and Shoshone. Recreation is a major focus along with energy development impacts.

Southwestern Region (Region 3)

The Southwestern region includes 20 million acres across Arizona and New Mexico including Apache-Sitgreaves, Cibola, Coronado, Gila, Lincoln, and Tonto forests. Fire prevention and recovery efforts are crucial.

Intermountain Region (Region 4)

This region contains over 32 million acres in southern Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and western Wyoming. Major forests are Boise, Bridger-Teton, Humboldt-Toiyabe, and Sawtooth. Sage grouse conservation is a priority.

Pacific Southwest Region (Region 5)

Covering 20 million acres in California, this region includes forests like Inyo, Los Padres, Klamath, Modoc, Plumas, Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity, Sierra, Sequoia, and Stanislaus. Fire risks and recreation demands are high.

Pacific Northwest Region (Region 6)

The Pacific Northwest region contains 24.7 million acres in Oregon and Washington including Deschutes, Fremont-Winema, Mount Hood, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, Olympic, Rogue River, Siskiyou, Siuslaw and Umpqua forests. Habitat restoration efforts focus on aiding endangered salmon recovery.

Southern Region (Region 8)

Stretching across 13 states from Virginia to Texas, this region contains over 12 million acres of forests including Daniel Boone, Chattahoochee-Oconee, Cherokee, and Ozark-St. Francis National Forests along with research on southern pine ecosystems.

Eastern Region (Region 9)

The Eastern region manages over 12 million acres across 20 states from Minnesota to Maine and south to Missouri including Allegheny, Chequamegon-Nicolet, Chippewa, Hiawatha, Huron-Manistee, Monongahela, Ottawa, Superior, and White Mountain forests. Partnerships with private landowners are crucial.

Alaska Region (Region 10)

This region oversees over 22 million acres of forests and grasslands exclusively in Alaska. Major areas are Chugach, Tongass, and the vast boreal forests of interior Alaska. Key issues are old growth forest protections and managingsubsistence use rights.

Dividing the Forest Service into regions allows tailored management for the unique ecosystems, wildfire risks, recreation demands, and resource issues relevant to different parts of the U.S. Within each region, management is further customized at the forest and district levels through localized planning. But shared expertise and resources can also be deployed across regions in response to major fires, insect infestations, or other emergencies. This matrix organizational structure attempts to achieve both customization and coordination across the Forest Service.


As one of the oldest federal conservation agencies, the U.S. Forest Service has a complex mission centered on sustaining the health and use of our forests and grasslands for present and future generations. Through foresighted efforts of early leaders, vast public lands have been protected in perpetuity but must now be actively managed to balance competing demands.

Wildfire management, land-use planning, ecosystem conservation, recreational access, rural development, and community assistance require extensive coordination across federal, state, tribal, local, nonprofit, and private partners. Providing these public benefits through sustainable management of our shared national forests is a continually evolving process requiring science, policy reforms, public engagement, and adequate funding.

While challenges exist, the dedicated staff of the Forest Service strive to find workable solutions through their expertise and passion for America’s forestlands. But only through public education, participation, and support can we assist the Forest Service in achieving their vital mission. Our forests provide values far beyond timber and recreation—they are crucial life support systems benefitting all. Learning about and engaging with the U.S. Forest Service is an investment in the future we leave to coming generations.

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