Discover United States Forest Service Land

Photo: Nathan Dappen/TandemStock

The USFS manages nearly 9% of America's land - here's how to find your way around.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was grappling with how to manage vast tracts of federal land. The first national park had been established just a generation earlier, and across the West “forest reserves” had recently been created. Competing forces advocated for protecting natural resources and using them.

In 1905, President Roosevelt transferred the care of a swath of public lands in the West to the newly formed United States Forest Service. Under its first chief, Gifford Pinchot, the agency was tasked with managing these “national forests” to provide quality water and timber for the country. 

Pinchot was a staunch conservationist and likely the first American to get a formal education in forestry (he attended the National School of Waters and Forests in France in 1900 and would go on to found the Yale School of Forestry). Under Pinchot’s leadership, the number of national forests in the United States skyrocketed, increasing from 32 to 149. (Today, Washington’s Gifford-Pinchot National Forest––containing Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams––bears his name.)

“Unless we practice conservation, those who come after us will have to pay the price of misery, degradation and failure for the progress and prosperity of our day,” said Pinchot. The purpose of the Forest Service, according to Pinchot, was “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”

From El Yunque in Puerto Rico (the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system) to Alaska’s 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest (its largest), today’s Forest Service manages 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. In all, that land totals 193 million acres. The Forest Service also works with state and local agencies to help care for 500 million acres of non-federal forests.

The Forest Service’s mission has evolved over the last century, but Pinchot’s “greater good” philosophy still underlies the agency’s management approach. 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.”

While most people today see our national forests as refuges for recreation—hiking, camping, paddling, climbing, biking, and more—they also provide important environmental benefits. National forests are an invaluable source of water: More than 180 million people in 68,000 communities rely on forest lands for their drinking water. Major cities like Denver, Los Angeles, and Portland are reliant on national forests for their water supply. Forests also offset 10% of the country’s carbon emissions and their very existence is critically important in combating climate change. 

A red canoe docks at the mountain lake in Tongass National Forest of Alaska. Photo: Jay

History of the USFS

Unlike the other primary agencies that manage federal public land—the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management—the US Forest Service is not part of the Department of the Interior. Rather, it’s part of the Department of Agriculture. This is an important distinction, and can be traced back to the agency’s roots, prior to its official creation in 1905.

A few decades earlier, in 1876, Congress created the office of Special Agent within the United States Department of Agriculture. This was the first federal agency assigned to manage forest land and its purpose was to “assess the quality and conditions” of the country’s forests.

This task begs another question, of course: Where did this land come from? For millennia prior to the arrival of European settlers, Indigenous communities lived in and relied on the forests from coast to coast. Appreciating our national forests, like our national parks, must include an understanding and acknowledgement of this history. Many Native communities were dispossessed of land they’d lived on for countless generations, and the impact on Indigenous cultures continues today. When you visit a national forest, consider using this Native Land map ((LINK: to learn about the history and present-day status of the Indigenous people who came before.

In 1891, the Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve was established as a protective buffer around Yellowstone National Park. As part of the reserve, the Shoshone National Forest was set aside and became the country’s first national forest, shortly before the USFS was put in charge of the country’s forest lands.

Today, national forests are created in Congress through legislation. One of the newest is Finger Lakes National Forest in upstate New York, which was established in 1985. It’s the state's only national forest.


Forest Service land includes a plethora of landscapes, environments, and ecosystems. The agency also manages 158,000 miles of trails and 5,000 miles of National Wild and Scenic Rivers. 

The management plans for each national forest vary greatly and are specific to the exact location (how a forest in Colorado is managed is very different from how a forest in Maine is managed). The plans help decide how to do things like protect endangered species, manage outdoor recreation, and decide where logging, mining, and drilling can happen. The Forest Service is always weighing protection of the natural landscape with development. It’s a tricky balance managing everything from water and timber to wildlife and recreation, as the right solution for one might not be best for the others. 

Nevertheless, most national forests offer a wealth of activities. Visitors can do things like camp, hike, backpack, climb, bike, hunt, fish, boat, ride horses, etc. National forests are often located near national parks (the Kaibab National Forest borders both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon). Some 122 ski resorts in the country are located on national forest land. National forests also contain 136 scenic byways. 

Smokey Bear

The Forest Service introduced the iconic Smokey the Bear campaign in 1944. It grew out of an effort to prevent wildfires during World War II, when most firefighters were serving overseas. You’ve likely seen the bear on Forest Service signs that highlight the current fire danger (low, moderate, high, very high, extreme) and no doubt you’ve heard Smokey’s famous tagline: Only you can prevent wildfires.

The Forest Service manages two-thirds of the country’s firefighting resources and fights wildfires from coast to coast, employing more than 10,000 firefighters every year. According to agency statistics, the Forest Service successfully controls “97 to 98% of all wildfires with initial attack” and that only 2-3% of fires escape.

How to Visit

Here at Public Lands we want to help you explore your public lands. We can help you find adventure near and far, make sure you bring the right things along, and give advice on how to plan ahead to make sure you have a great time when you’re out there. 

Ready to start exploring? More than 7 in 10 Americans live within 100 miles of a national forest. To find out which one is the closest to you, or to research national forests across the country, head to:

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.