U.S. Forest Service looks at changes in the 21st century

Resiliency is replacing productivity as the watchword of the U.S. Forest Service.

The agency was founded in 1905 on the idea that using the science and technology of forestry could dramatically increase forest productivity and prevent a threatened “timber famine.” Historian Samuel Hays described it as “the gospel of efficiency.”

At the heart of that policy was eliminating forest fires, a goal and task the agency carried into the 1970s. A debate, which began in the agency as early as the 1920s and continued into the 21st century, pitted the agency status quo against people who saw the natural role of fire in forests as a process to be used, not stopped.

In the meantime, the concerns over other values like water quality, fish and wildlife habitat and wilderness constrained the traditional goal to make the forests produce more wood fiber. And the signal fires of 1988 in and around Yellowstone, and the series of huge western fires culminating with those in 2000, gave those who wanted to manage fire instead of stop it the upper hand.

In the process, the Forest Service struggled to find its new philosophical base. When your philosophy takes more than one sentence to explain, it loses people along the way.

That’s why productivity and efficiency were so powerful in describing the goals of the agency a hundred years ago. These ideas, and the national horror of the 1910 fires in Idaho and Montana, led to the passage of the Weeks Act on March 1, 1911.

The law, sponsored by U.S. Rep. John W. Weeks, provided funding and authority for the Forest Service to cooperate with states on fire control.

The Forest Service’s current chief, Tom Tidwell, who grew up in Boise, has effectively used the word “resiliency” to form a new consensus for managing the 193 million acres of national forests.

The new goal is to maintain the resilience of forest ecosystems and to restore that resilience where it has declined. But what does that mean?

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