Forest Service May Move to Interior. Some See Agency As Out of Place Under the USDA

Forest Service May Move to Interior. Some See Agency As Out of Place Under the USDA. By Christopher Lee. Washington Post Staff Writer.

While this may seem new, this is one of the oldest controversies in the history of American conservation.

The Forest Service began at the end of the 19th century as the Division of Forestry in the Department of Interior. President Theodore Roosevelt and his key advisor, forester Gifford Pinchot, pushed to move the Division of Forestry to the Department of Agriculture. USDA was then a new department. Many felt it was progressive and science-minded compared to the old line Department of Interior, then properly regarded as a site of corruption. The Division was moved, renamed the U.S. Forest Service, and Pinchot became the first Chief Forester. He had a very close relation with President Roosevelt during his time in office.

Pinchot was the father of the concept that the national forests should be used for many things (multiple use), not protection of wildlife and scenery alone. In fact, he devalued these latter ideas, causing a split in the early conservation movement between the utilitarian and development minded conservationists and those who sided with John Muir — “esthetic conservationists.” Both were disliked in places like Idaho. In fact, Idaho’s senator Heyburn (an early day Larry Craig) successfully pushed legislation to stop the creation of more national forests by the President.

Later during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, there was a long battle where Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes (father of the current Harold Ickes in the news) tried for years to get the Service back in Interior, only to fail. As the article above says, Presidents since have proposed putting the Forest Service back or part of a new Department of Natural Resources. All attempts have failed due to the entrenched interest groups that have struggled over these issues in the last hundred years.

Today it’s hard to say which Department is the most corrupt, although once again I’d say Interior is. It has had both high and low profile scandal after scandal under Bush. I have posted articles on many of these, most recently Julie MacDonald and her politicization of endangered species petitions.


  1. JB Avatar

    Pinchot worked hard to try to gain control of the National Parks as well. He was appointed in 1905, by that time several parks had been designated, but the NPS was not established until it got its organic act in 1916. Pinchot may have pulled it off too, except that his public support for the damming of the Tuolumme river in Yosemite (and ridicule of John Muir) galvanized support for a Park Service dedicated to preservation of natural resources, not multiple use.

  2. Wolfy Avatar

    “Mark E. Rey, USDA’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment, said the department will cooperate with the study “and when we see what the results are, we’ll take a position on it.” ” (quote from article)
    I don’t know how the Forest Service would be lead under the USDI, but as of now, being under the thumb of Mark Rey, the Forest Service is a shambles. His quote above shows that the leadership in the FS is on a reactionary tract; not a proactive mindset. The FS is literally and figuratively only ready to put out fires. There is very little true leadership and most of the problems facing the FS today are their own doing. The Bush administration has done a very good job of dismantling the FS and is now trying to throw the offal to the corporations.

    Pinchot and all the great chiefs of the FS must surely be looking down on the travesty that is now called the FS with anger and pity. It would be better to move the FS to a different department or disband it all together than to watch it continue to sprial down in flames (pun intended).

  3. Cowboy the Cat Avatar

    I think the Bush Interior D. is no more or less Corrupt than the Bush Agriculture D. It’s just more high profile stuff what with the ESA being administered by interior and all.

    That last point is why I think this is a good idea. Interior knows about multiple use. It’s dogma there. They also deal with the ESA every day (badly right now, admittedly)They could easily transition to adminisering the forest service. USDA should handle conventional agriculture.

    Under the proper leadership (you know… the “best science” kind that we supposedly already have) I think it could all be run much more efficiently. Not to mention the injection of funding interior would get out of it.

    Ultimately in this administration, as my father says, it’s “six of one, half dozen the other,” but it could be a good thing.

  4. Mike Post Avatar
    Mike Post

    The move could only help. USDA seems to view forests as commodities, forest trees as just unprocessed 2×4’s or paper pulp. It would also hopfully result in a more holistic approach to forest based grazing lease management.

  5. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    I remember a few years ago when Audubon floated an idea to split the National Wildlife Refuge System off from the Fish and Wildlife Service and create a separate agency within Interior for the System, because the System was starving for attention (and budget) within the FWS. The proposal went nowhere.

    It’s interesting that when things are going badly, the American approach is to come up with a different bureaucratic structure in hopes that somehow the new structure will fix the problems of the old structure. I believe Christ’s parable about old wine in new skins applies here. The old wine corrupts the new skin from inside, and pretty soon it’s old skin, not from age, but from the contact with the old wine.

    The problems we face in North America and the world itself are so extraordinary and unprecedented in human history (not sure about pre-history–the coming and going of ice ages was pretty traumatic) that they do not seem amenable to “change the chain of command” solution we see with the above proposal, which, as has been pointed out, is old hat in conservation history. The agencies are suffering from constitutional, institutional, and organizational schlerosis, and I don’t think that any amount of tinkering with organizational relationships will help much. Interior is no better than Agriculture; it’s primary client is minerals and energy, as the primary client of Agriculture is agribusiness. All a transfer would do is cost a lot of money; I doubt it can revive the USFS, except perhaps through a new version of “get the cut out” to solve the pine beetle “problem.”

    I think our efforts should look instead to the creation of independent regional institutions with constitutional foundations based in conservation and the ecological sciences, including ecological economics. That approach can’t be any worse than Manifest Destiny fueled by the failed ideas of classical and neo-classical economics.

  6. Brian Ertz Avatar

    even if it were to only bring the bureaucracies into some semblance of uniformity it would be worth it.

  7. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    On top of everything else, the USFS would have to change its sleeve patches. I’ve been through a few of those patch changes in the Army, and it’s a pain in the rear.


  8. Brian Ertz Avatar


    of course, my thoughts are based purely on self interest ~ trying to become fluent in 2 very different bureaucracies … urggh… like the time i inquired about gaining ‘interested public’ status on an FS allotment … 😉 … no – rather than subject myself to such embarrassment again – i think it’d be prudent for the federal government to spare me and just move the mountains – merge the bureaucracies –

    of course, the sleeve patches are a good point – lord knows it’s gunna look like hell with all that sun-bleaching. i don’t see how they’re going to cover it all.

    you’re right on about the need for an infusion of meaningful conservation directive. bioregional… perhaps make the geographical unit of jurisdiction/management by watershed with strong conservation principles amiable to particular biomes. these contrived political boundaries we’ve got now make for mishmash management and a complete alienation from the systems/communities/competencies upon which awareness and jurisdiction might be possible (one must know about a mine putting cyanide into a tributary of my water supply – but one must also have more immediate jurisdiction if people are to be motivated/energized to do something about it) – this convoluted system of bureaucracy was built for alienation – built for industry.

    in other words – i agree with you Robert that the constitutional, institutional, and organizational sclerosis is real. i guess i just see the possibility that the reforms to each pillar might be co-mutual. that is, if the right re-organization – i.e. in this case consolidation – takes place, the bureaucracy has the potential to become a little more rational/coherent – such coherence chips away at the alienation that industry relies on, and perhaps nudges us toward a broader awareness/investment necessary to demand the constitutional reforms you mention.

    likewise, of course, it can work with the initial onus being on the constitutional reforms as well. i guess we’re not really saying anything different.

  9. Wolfy Avatar

    RH, You explained it far better than I could. I’ve worn many sleeve patches, as well. The shirts are almost the same, you just need a larger patch to cover up the unfaded part of the sleeve. It seems like the Who song that goes: ” New boss, same as the old boss”. Perhaps what is needed is a injection of good, old fashion common sense into our agencies; the gov’t should be serving the people not the corporate interests. There needs to be a better alignment of the crucial duties and less overlap. And a good house cleaning wouldn’t hurt either.

  10. JB Avatar

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the problem is not with the agencies, or most of their personnel. The real problems are the political appointees, the chronic underfunding of agencies, and the outright disregard for the law displayed by the current administration.

    With that said, I had two reactions when I first saw this that parallel Brian and Robert’s comments. The first was: Great! Reduce the bureaucracy and house NR management agencies under one roof. The second (and far more cynical) was: changing he signs in the NWR system will eat up the entire FWS budget.

  11. JB Avatar

    Sheesh– I should’ve said, changing the signs in the National Forests will eat up the entire FS budget. I guess that only demonstrates how confusing it can be to have so many NR management agencies! 😉

  12. vicki Avatar

    Couldn’t they just buy a bunch of white out? (Just kidding:))
    This one seems a bit complicated to me.
    Brian or Robert, could you just sum up pros and cons?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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