Why We Need a Bold Investment in the Forest Service

The Forest Service and other land management agencies have been starved for funding for decades. Here’s why we need a bold investment to protect our National Forests, and what you can do to help.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
April 06, 2021

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the Forest Service manages some of our most spectacular natural landscapes and favorite places to hike, ski, climb, and camp. But even as the popularity of outdoor recreation increases and climate change intensifies, funding for the Forest Service and other land management agencies has decreased. 

Since the 1990’s, the Forest Service has had its funding and staff reduced across nearly every program. There are now half as many trail crew and forestry technicians as there were in 1992, even as visitation has increased by more than 800,000 visits a year. With half as much staff and twice as much responsibility, National Forests have been struggling. Public lands suffer from maintenance issues, increased litter, illegal parking and more, but Forest Service staff are also burned out and demoralized, causing longer-term problems for the agency. 

Mountaineers and many others in the outdoor community have a keen understanding of how Forest Service staffing and funding shortfalls have affected wild places and our outdoor experience. Maybe you’ve driven up a potholed road to a trailhead, only to find the restroom closed due to lack of maintenance. Or you can’t access your favorite backpacking loop because a washed out bridge won’t be replaced any time soon. A hollowed-out career workforce has left the Forest Service hamstrung in its ability to keep up with current management demands, let alone proactively respond to climate impacts and growing outdoor recreation. 

The Forest Service needs robust funding to protect the places we love and ensure they are sustained for generations to come. The Mountaineers, along with our partners at Winter Wildlands Alliance and Outdoor Alliance, recently delivered a report to the Biden Administration and to Congress asking them for bold investments in the Forest Service. Here’s why this funding is critically needed:

Demand for recreation is only increasing

The pandemic has amplified a trend that’s been going on for the last decade - more and more people are getting outside and enjoying outdoor recreation. Since 1977, the number of visitor days on national forest trails has increased 376 percent. Our cherished natural places are experiencing more visitation with the same or less Forest Service management capacity. Hiker use of popular trails along the I-90 corridor was 50-55 percent higher in 2020 compared to 2019. The Forest Service needs funding to ensure it can carefully manage increased use, protect these cherished natural resources, and steward our National Forests so people can continue to enjoy them. 

While the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) provides much-needed funding for Forest Service deferred maintenance needs, the Forest Service does not currently have adequate staff necessary to administer GAOA deferred maintenance and Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) projects. Moreover, GAOA funding only addresses a fraction of the Forest Service’s deferred maintenance needs.

Addressing climate change

Public lands must be a part of addressing climate change, and National Forests, which store huge amounts of carbon, are already critical for addressing the climate crisis. The Forest Service needs more resources to address and plan for climate impacts like wildfires, low water supply, and wildlife issues. These changes fundamentally affect our outdoor experience and the annual $788 billion outdoor recreation economy. 

The Forest Service needs to write new plans to strategically protect the lands that can mitigate climate issues, and to identify lands that are suitable for renewable energy development so that we can balance the country’s energy needs with biodiversity, recreation, and conservation priorities. Many of the current forest plans - the foundations upon which localized climate responses are built - are woefully outdated. As any outdoor enthusiast knows, navigating with outdated maps in a changing landscape is a recipe for disaster. 

Everyone deserves access to public lands

Everyone in America should be able to access and enjoy public lands. Many people do not feel safe or welcome on public lands today because of a long history of disenfranchisement, prejudice, and outright danger. Indeed, research shows that the Forest Service is failing to serve the full spectrum of the American public, fostering inequity across the National Forest system. As we’ve worked on for years, the Forest Service needs funding to improve permitting, which currently prevents more people from diverse backgrounds from experiencing the outdoors through a group like The Mountaineers. A lack of Forest Service capacity also affects the Agency’s ability to protect cultural resources that connect Indigenous communities to the landscape, and to create more accessible trails and picnic areas. 

Supporting rural economies

Rural communities have struggled since the recession with population loss, job loss, and economic distress. Extractive industries like logging and mining that once drove rural economies are on the decline, while outdoor recreation is booming. Research shows that counties with more access to public lands and outdoor recreation have greater wealth and faster-growing wages, particularly in rural communities. As these communities invest in recreation to expand their economies, they rely on high-quality, easily accessible outdoor recreation opportunities. The Forest Service needs additional resources so it can invest in these communities and help them adapt, grow, and respond to a changing American economy. 

Creating jobs

The outdoor recreation economy comprises a significant portion of the national GDP. From backpacking to backcountry skiing, summer camps to hunting camps, Forest Service lands play host to a wide variety of outdoor recreation activities and support many outdoor recreation-focused businesses. However, permitting backlogs and a lack of proactive planning hinder economic opportunities related to outdoor recreation on National Forest lands. 

The Forest Service has far fewer staff than it did thirty years ago, making it difficult for the agency to keep up with maintenance, increased recreation demand, and the need to address our changing climate. Chronic underfunding has made it challenging for the agency to work with nonprofit organizations to steward forests and manage volunteers. More funding for the Forest Service would allow the agency to hire adequate staff to meet demand. The Forest Service needs workers at every level, from seasonal positions to career-level hires, and Forest Service jobs provide good pay and benefits. More funding means more jobs, more economic opportunities for people and communities, and more capacity for the agency. You can read our full report here.

Read Report

How you can help

There’s an important role for you to play as we work toward better supporting public lands. As the administration and Congress prepare their budgets for the Forest Service and other public land management agencies this year, they need your input. Click the link below to send a message to your representatives and to the administration asking them to prioritize full, robust funding for the Forest Service to ensure it can meet the needs of the American people. 

Take Action

we appreciate working on this issue with  our friends at Winter wildlands alliance and outdoor alliance.

main image of the mt baker-snoqualmie national forest. Photo by gabe purpur.