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After the Timber Wars: Collaborative Community-Based Stewardship1
Dale Bosworth and Hutch Brown
(Dale Bosworth is a Chief Emeritus of the U.S. Forest Service, Missoula, MT; Hutch Brown is a policy analyst for the Forest Service, Washington, DC.)

Abstract. The focus of the Forest Service has changed in recent decades from timber production to ecological restoration and outdoor recreation. This paper shows how the old timber focus gave way to a new ecosystem focus, with a huge potential for coming together around shared values. The Forest Service is working through community-based stewardship to restore and maintain ecosystems that can deliver a broad array of services that people want and need. Examples of collaborative work highlighted in the paper include stewardship contracts.

The timber wars are over—though it seems hard for some to admit. Ecowarriors still revel in their self-proclaimed role of defending nature, whereas some in the forest products industry still yearn for the days when timber was king. Both sides still profit from opening old wounds and letting them fester.

It is time to move on. Fortunately, some are now seeing the light (Friedman 2006; Vaughan 2006). Foresters are embracing the need to improve habitat for species such as spotted owl (Irwin 2006), whereas environmentalists are rethinking the old conflict paradigm (Brown 2006). For the sake of the lands they share and generations to come, there is no other way: The future of national forest management lies in collaborative community-based stewardship. Our purpose here is to show why.

Conservation Consensus

The Forest Service has collaborative roots. More than a century ago—before there were any national forests—the agency’s predecessor organization worked with partners to promote a revolutionary concept: sustainable forest management in place of cut-and-run logging. Early foresters helped private landowners develop sound forest management plans on hundreds of thousands of acres, just as the Forest Service still does today through its State and Private Forestry programs.

In 1905, when the fledgling Forest Service was entrusted with managing the forest reserves, the agency inherited a situation rife with conflict. Many westerners resented what they saw as a Federal “land lockup,” their bitterness compounded by perceived bureaucratic insensitivity. The Forest Service responded by working with communities to meet local needs for livestock forage and other resources from national forest land. Through partnerships and close working relationships, the agency forged a lasting consensus based on protecting the national forests for future generations.

Given the policy debates of recent years, it is easy to forget that the national forests were rarely logged for the first 40 years of their existence. National forest management was initially custodial in nature, based on protecting natural resources and promoting conservative use. Livestock grazing was common, but large-scale timber extraction was not. That began to change during World War II, when timber was needed to support the war effort. For the first time, national forest timber harvests exceeded 3 billion board feet per year (fig. 1).

Large-scale timber harvest from national forest system lands (a board foot equals a 12-inch-square piece of lumber that is 1 inch thick). Source: USDA Agricultural Statistics, various years.

Figure 1— Large-scale timber harvest from national forest system lands (a board foot equals a 12-inch-square piece of lumber that is 1 inch thick). Source: USDA Agricultural Statistics, various years.

The postwar housing boom in the United States triggered industrial-scale timber harvests on national forest land. In 1959, in response to a request from the Eisenhower administration, the Forest Service projected “an annual harvest on a sustained-yield basis of 21.1 billion board feet of sawtimber by the year 2000” (U.S. Forest Service 1959). Such a high sustained yield—more than twice the highest average annual level of production ever reached—seemed feasible at the time because almost all timberland on the national forests was in principle open to timber harvest—about 97 million acres in 1963 (Smith and others 2001). Timber harvests never approached this ambitious goal, but they did reach average annual levels of about 10 billion board feet from the 1960s through the 1980s, peaking at 12.7 billion board feet in 1987 (fig. 1).2

Consensus Collapse

In the 1950s, the 50-year consensus around national forest management began to erode. Since 1900, the number of Americans had doubled, with the vast majority now living in urban or suburban areas. Growing postwar prosperity and leisure time, together with the new mobility and access provided by cars and forest roads, were bringing unprecedented numbers of urban and suburban visitors to the national forests. They came partly to enjoy the scenery, and many were shocked to see signs of industrial-scale timber management. In the 1960s, infuriated by clearcutting in favorite parts of the national forests, hunters and environmentalists raised high-profile controversies over timber-related activities by the Forest Service in Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

In response to such concerns, Congress enacted laws designed to balance the need for timber against other uses of the national forests. The Wilderness Act (1964), Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (1974), and National Forest Management Act (1976) were all partly intended to shore up the flagging consensus behind national forest management. Upon passage of the latter, Senator Hubert Humphrey remarked that it would finally “get the practice of forestry out of the courts and back in the forests.”

Instead, the opposite occurred: More cases than ever went to court. The new laws were never designed to promote collaborative stewardship based on conditions in the field, but rather to balance competing interests already locked in fierce struggle. Moreover, the environmental legislation of the 1970s made it easier for citizens and nongovernmental organizations to sue the Forest Service (MacCleery 2006). High levels of timber harvest continued, now mitigated by riparian buffers and other actions designed to protect nontimber values such as scenery and wildlife habitat, but few people were satisfied. The new statutory and regulatory framework became a battleground for environmentalists and the forest products industry. When clearcutting waned in the 1990s, the debate simply shifted to commercial resource extraction itself (MacCleery 2006).

In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of developments converged:

  • Environmental groups prevailed in a series of lawsuits, particularly in litigation under the Endangered Species Act for more habitat protection for threatened, endangered, and sensitive species. One result was the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994, which greatly limited timber harvests on Federal forests in the Pacific Northwest to protect old-growth habitat for the endangered northern spotted owl and other species.

  • Under the new environmental laws, the Forest Service revised its procedures for planning forest management, analyzing proposed actions, and involving the public in making decisions. Interest groups soon learned how to exploit the new process, tying up management through appeals and lawsuits. To “bullet-proof” their decisions, national forest managers devoted more time and resources to analysis and documentation, to the point where planning and analysis became principal Forest Service activities—again, tying up management. Timber sales lagged, as did restoration projects and other needed on-the-ground work.

  • Within the Forest Service itself, growing numbers of employees questioned the sustainability of high timber harvest levels (Hirt 1994; Lewis 2005; MacCleery 2006; Moore 1996; Thomas 2004). With the emergence of “new forestry” and ecosystem management, the Forest Service’s approach to national forest management fundamentally changed: Managers shifted focus from outputs of goods and services to long-term outcomes such as ecosystem health and resilience on a watershed scale. In the process, managers began deemphasizing timber in favor of other programs.

  • Although ecowarriors caught the public eye, structural shifts in timber production and markets were quietly bypassing the public debate (Collins and others 2007).

    • Highly productive plantation forests, both at home and abroad, have gradually undercut natural forests in the United States as cheap sources of timber (Sedjo 1983). The global forest plantation area has grown from nearly zero a hundred years ago to about 460 million acres today, mostly in fast-growing pine and eucalyptus species (FAO 2005). In the United States, plantations now cover 42 million acres, mostly in the Southeast, and improved processing technologies have allowed plantation species to penetrate markets previously dominated by older natural-grown trees. Plantation efficiencies mean that increasing amounts of wood come from a declining timber base; by 2050, fully 50 percent of the softwood harvest in the United States is expected to come from 9 percent of the nation’s timber base (Haynes and others 2005). In effect, private tree farms have erased the postwar need for large-scale timber supplies from national forest land.

    • Much of America’s wood supply now comes from foreign producers, who have captured a growing share of the U.S. market. About four boards of softwood lumber in ten now come from other countries, mostly Canada (WWPA 2004); and many finished wood products, particularly furniture, now come from China (Forest Trends 2006). Under these circumstances, many markets for national forest timber have simply dried up.

Taken together, these developments have had an inescapable—and irreversible—effect: In the 1990s, national forest timber harvest plunged to prewar levels, where it has leveled off at about 2 billion board feet per year (fig. 1). Of course, the agency still delivers a full range of goods, values, and services to the American people, and in some places the Forest Service might decide to extract timber to help furnish local jobs and supply Americans with wood. However, the days of large-scale timber production on national forest land are gone. There is nothing left to fight about.

The Case for Community-Based Stewardship

But there is plenty left to be concerned about—very concerned. One study suggests that two-thirds of the National Forest System is at risk of uncharacteristically severe wildland fires (Schmidt and others 2002), and tens of millions of acres in all ownerships are infested with invasive species. Outdoor recreation, particularly the use of off-highway vehicles, is not always well enough managed to prevent serious damage to sensitive meadows, streams, and other natural resources. Users have created an estimated 14,000 miles of trails on national forest land, causing severe and widespread damage. To address these and other concerns, the Forest Service is focusing on ecological restoration and outdoor recreation (Bosworth and Brown 2007).

National forest management is most effective when local communities are actively engaged. People who live on or near national forest land are intimately familiar with local conditions; their knowledge and participation can spell the difference between project success and failure. Moreover, those who live on the land and use it inevitably affect it through their behavior. Management activities are truly sustainable only with active support from local communities.

The challenge for the Forest Service is to engage local communities and anyone else interested in national forest management. Unfortunately, lingering animosities—a legacy of the timber wars—can make it difficult to find common ground. Appeals and lawsuits still plague national forest management, undermining the basis for collaborative community-based stewardship.

Fortunately, times have changed. Some veterans of the old timber wars now realize that fighting old battles diverts attention and resources from more pressing problems. The Forest Service has growing opportunities to capitalize on commonalities, bringing stakeholders together to achieve mutual restoration goals.

One way is through a “stewardship contract.” Stewardship contracts are tailored to local conditions and needs. Some incorporate elements of traditional timber sales or service contracts; some bundle unrelated management tasks, such as stream restoration and campground construction; and some involve long-term cooperative agreements, such as maintaining habitat for elk or wild turkey. All focus on shared long-term goals. The contractor is responsible for achieving outcomes across the landscape, usually by subcontracting part of the work. Local people get involved in various aspects of the project, giving local communities the sense of project ownership and pride in the results that are essential for sustainable stewardship.

Dozens of stewardship contracts have been completed all over the country. For example:

  • At Seeley Lake, Montana, the Clearwater Stewardship Project in 2002 restored overgrown western larch forests, rescuing huge old larches from the threat of fire, insects, and disease. Project components included obliterating unneeded road and restoring spawning habitat for native bull and cutthroat trout. Local contractors proudly show off their work.

  • In the Great North Woods of New Hampshire, local forestry organizations worked together under a stewardship contract to complete an interpretive trail in 2003 along the well-traveled Kancamangus Highway. Small-scale logging operations cleared the trail, generating enough funds to include a trailhead and parking area. A team of local citizens and organizations helps oversee and fund long-term trail maintenance and improvements.

  • In Arizona’s White Mountains, where the largest fire in Arizona history devastated hundreds of thousands of acres in 2002, a 10-year stewardship contract was signed in 2004 to restore up to 250,000 acres of overgrown ponderosa pine. The contractor is removing small trees that are choking the old orange-barked pines, reducing the threat of fire, insects, and disease. The materials are used to generate power and wood products, offsetting the cost of removal.

New Collaborative Consensus?

In a sense, the Forest Service has come full circle. The agency began life a century ago in an atmosphere of skepticism toward conservation and distrust of Federal land managers. By forging local partnerships and cooperative agreements, the Forest Service built a lasting public consensus behind national forest management.

In the postwar period, widespread conflict broke out over large-scale timber harvest on national forest land. However, harvests have plummeted, and there is no more reason to fight over timber. Americans today have an opportunity to forge a new consensus behind national forest management based on mutual restoration goals.

It won’t be easy. Whether locally or nationally, there are strong and abiding differences of opinion when it comes to national forest management. Fortunately, there is also a shared passion for the land and strong underlying agreement on the need to restore healthy, resilient ecosystems. If we can focus on the commonalities instead of the differences—on new opportunities for collaboration instead of old grounds for conflict—then we can get there. The key is collaborative community-based stewardship.


We would like to thank those who reviewed or contributed to this paper, including Guy Robertson, a policy analyst for the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; Sally Collins, Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; William Lange, Director of Policy Analysis, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; and Doug MacCleery, Senior Policy Analyst, Forest Management, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC.

End Notes

1This article appeared in Journal of Forestry 105(5) [July/August 2007]: 271–273.

2Figure 1 shows a peak of more than 13 billion board feet in 1988, but that figure includes timber actually harvested during the preceding year. The anomaly is due to a change in recordkeeping procedures in the late 1980s.


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Brown, P.A. 2006. Changing the paradigm. American Forests 112(1): 30–35.

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Irwin, L. 2006. Loggers hugging spotted owls? California Forests 10(2): 10–11.

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Moore, B. 1996. The Lochsa story: Land ethics in the Bitterroot Mountains. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company.

Schmidt, K.M.; Menakis, J.P.; Hardy, C.C.; Hann, W.J.; Bunnell, D.L. 2002. Development of coarse-scale spatial data for wildland fire and fuel management. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-87. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Sedjo, R.A. 1983. The comparative economics of plantation forestry: A global assessment. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press for Resources for the Future.

Smith, W.B.; Vissage, J.S.; Darr, D.R.; Sheffield, R.M. 2001. Forest resources of the United States, 1997. St. Paul, MN: U.S. Forest Service, North Central Research Station.

Thomas, J.W. 2004. The journals of a Forest Service Chief. Durham, NC: Forest History Society.

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Vaughan, R. 2006. Kicking dirt and drinking beer: The dynamics of moving conservation from conflict to cooperation. Presentation at conference: 6 th Annual Meeting, Southeastern Working Group of Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation; 24 February 2006; Andalusia, AL.

WWPA (Western Wood Products Association). 2004. News release, 15 December.

Figure 1 shows a peak of more than 13 billion board feet in 1988, but that figure includes timber actually harvested during the preceding year. The anomaly is due to a change in recordkeeping procedures in the late 1980s.


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