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Forest Service

Overview

The following provides an overview of the Forest Service and its programs related to transportation and the environment. Topics include the following:

Background

The USDA Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was originally established in 1905 to provide quality water and timber for the nation’s benefit. Its role has expanded over the years to encompass environmental stewardship and recreation management duties. This includes the building of roads throughout the public lands it manages in the nation's 155 national forests and 20 grasslands. These areas are located in 44 different states, and encompass 191 million acres of land, a total area equivalent to the size of Texas.  There are about 383,000 miles of roads throughout Forest Service lands.

The Forest Service is also the largest forestry research organization in the world. It provides technical and financial assistance to state and private forestry agencies. Part of what the Forest Service does is to effect community assistance and cooperation with state and local governments, forest industries, and private landowners to help protect and manage non-federal forest and associated range and lands to improve conditions in rural areas.

There are four levels of national forest offices: 600 ranger districts; 155 national forests and 20 grasslands; nine regional offices; and the national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The ranger districts are in charge of many on-the-ground activities, including trail construction and maintenance. The Forest Service has a workforce of approximately 30,000 employees.

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Transportation Role

Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Forest Service is responsible for identifying and evaluating potential impacts of transportation projects to National Forest Service lands and resources. The Service works to ensure project consistency with forest land and resource management plans.

As the lead agency on Forest Service transportation projects, the Service must collaborate and cooperate with other transportation agencies.  The Forest Service serves a dual role of land manager and transportation manager, which involves collaborative relationships in order to protect the National Forests.

The agency’s responsibility under NEPA is to participate and cooperate early in the NEPA process in an interdisciplinary manner. Its role is to create roads that provide sustainable access to the nation’s forests and are managed within the environmental capability of the land. 

The Forest Service, operating on behalf of the Secretary of Agriculture, also is a member of the Interagency Task Force established under the Executive Order 13274, Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Reviews. The Task Force is charged with promoting interagency cooperation and establishment of appropriate mechanisms to coordinate Federal, State, tribal, and local agency consultation, review, approval, and permitting of transportation infrastructure projects.

The Forest Services’ role in streamlining environmental reviews for transportation projects is to identify transportation needs of the Service and to create national and statewide agreements defining roles and responsibilities on how agencies should work together.

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Road Management

The Forest Service in August 1999 published a pamphlet entitled Roads Analysis: Informing Decisions About Managing the National Forest Transportation System.

An abstract of the pamphlet calls roads analysis "an integrated ecological, social, and economic science-based approach to transportation planning that addresses existing and future road management options. A completed science-based roads analysis will inform management decisions about the benefits and risks of constructing new roads in unroaded areas: relocating, stabilizing, changing the standards of, or decommissioning unneeded roads; access issues; and increasing, reducing, or discontinuing road maintenance."

The pamphlet addresses a number of issues pertinent to transportation. For example, it poses the following questions:

  • How does the road system connect to public roads and provide primary access to communities?
  • How does the road system connect large blocks of land in other ownership to public roads (ad hoc communities, subdivisions, inholdings, and so on)?
  • How does the road system affect managing roads with shared ownership or with limited jurisdiction? These include RS 2477 rights of way, cost-share, prescriptive rights, Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) easements, Forest Road and Trail Act (FRTA) easements, and Department of Transportation (DOT easements). RS 2477 rights-of-way are property rights originally granted by the federal government to establish the transportation network essential to settlement of the western frontier. Generally, these rights-of-way grants were made to local governments and are held in trust by them for the public. They still provide virtually all the public access to and across the hundreds of millions of acres of public lands in the West and Alaska.

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