U.S. Congress Limits Forest Clear-Cutting Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With passage of the National Forest Management Act as an amendment to the 1974 Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, the U.S. Congress further regulated national forest management, particularly with regard to clear-cutting.

Summary of Event

After the tradition and policy of the U.S. Forest Service, Forest Service, U.S. an agency of the Department of Agriculture, Department of Agriculture, U.S. were formalized through the passage of the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act []Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act (1960)[Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act (1960)] in 1960, public debate continued over national forest management. Significant controversy circulated around clear-cutting Clear-cutting[Clear cutting] in the Monongahela National Forest Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, and forest management became a much-publicized political issue. U.S. senator Lee Metcalf Metcalf, Lee asked Arnold Bolle, dean of forestry at the University of Montana, to investigate Forest Service practices, and in 1970, Bolle issued a report stating that clear-cuts were too extensive and that other harvesting methods were more appropriate. Moreover, reforestation costs exceeded economic return, and given the abundance of land, timber removal without replanting was considered preferable to costly reforestation. Generally, the press and the public viewed the report as an indictment of clear-cutting, and the Forest Service fell under greater scrutiny. National Forest Management Act (1976) Forest management Natural resources, conservation [kw]U.S. Congress Limits Forest Clear-Cutting (Oct. 22, 1976) [kw]Congress Limits Forest Clear-Cutting, U.S. (Oct. 22, 1976) [kw]Forest Clear-Cutting, U.S. Congress Limits (Oct. 22, 1976) [kw]Clear-Cutting, U.S. Congress Limits Forest (Oct. 22, 1976) National Forest Management Act (1976) Forest management Natural resources, conservation [g]North America;Oct. 22, 1976: U.S. Congress Limits Forest Clear-Cutting[02600] [g]United States;Oct. 22, 1976: U.S. Congress Limits Forest Clear-Cutting[02600] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 22, 1976: U.S. Congress Limits Forest Clear-Cutting[02600] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 22, 1976: U.S. Congress Limits Forest Clear-Cutting[02600] [c]Natural resources;Oct. 22, 1976: U.S. Congress Limits Forest Clear-Cutting[02600] Bolle, Arnold Church, Frank Humphrey, Hubert H. Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;environmental policy

In 1971, Senator Frank Church of Idaho conducted hearings on clear-cutting policies in national forests, and testimony was given by forest scientists and concerned citizens. It was decided that no new legislation was required, but the Forest Service agreed to follow nonbinding recommendations, known as the Church guidelines, concerning environmental protection and care in clear-cut planning and applications.

Also in 1971, the Sierra Club Sierra Club published Nancy Wood’s Clearcut: The Deforestation of America, Clearcut (Wood) which examined the Monongahela situation and proposed new forest management procedures. In 1973, the Izaak Walton League Izaak Walton League of America and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed suit against Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz Butz, Earl to stop timber cutting in the Monongahela. The plaintiffs claimed that Forest Service practices exceeded the authority granted by the Organic Act of 1897, Organic Act (1897) which allowed only marked and designated mature timber to be cut and removed from the forest. Because the judges found the Forest Service in violation of the Organic Act (the agency’s harvesting agenda included immature and unmarked timber, which often was not removed from the forest), the court prohibited the Forest Service from further commercial harvesting until the agency’s management activities conformed to the law or Congress changed the law.

A clear-cut area on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.

(Jim West)

The Forest Service argued that a literal reading of the Organic Act was outdated and impractical and subsequently filed an appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1975, the appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling and directed the Forest Service to halt clear-cutting in all states in the Fourth Circuit (West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina). The Monongahela decision influenced litigation elsewhere in the country; cases were presented in Alaska, Georgia, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, and injunctions prohibiting timber harvesting were issued in Texas and Alaska.

As a result, Congress was forced to reexamine national forest management issues. Senator Jennings Randolph Randolph, Jennings of West Virginia proposed legislation limiting the authority of the Forest Service in national forest management. It was argued that the agency emphasized timber production, not multiple use as mandated. In contrast, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, endorsed by the timber industry, presented a bill that advocated repeal of the Organic Act section on which the Monongahela decision was founded; Humphrey argued for the Forest Service’s discretionary authority in national forest management. A variation of Humphrey’s bill passed through Congress as the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976.

The NFMA came about in an era of great environmental awareness among Americans fostered by the press and environmental activism and characterized by increased congressional environmental legislation. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, significant legislation that directly affected forest management and preceded NFMA included the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, National Environmental Policy Act (1969) (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, Endangered Species Act (1973) and the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (1974) (RPA) of 1974. NEPA established the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and required the research and design of an environmental impact statement Environmental impact statements (EIS) for all forest management plans. The EIS was to be prepared by implementing an interdisciplinary approach across the social and natural sciences, and remarks were to be solicited from people or organizations interested in or affected by the plan. The ESA was devoted to the conservation of threatened and endangered species Endangered species;legislation and their habitats. This legislation was to have a far-reaching impact on national forest management because entire ecosystems would be affected.

In response to conflicts between the timber industry and conservation groups over national forest management, the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act was signed by President Gerald R. Ford on August 17, 1974. This act mandated the preparation of national forest management plans every ten years. The plans were to include an estimate of projected supply and demand for renewable resources, a renewable resources inventory, an outline of Forest Service commitments and programs, and forest management policies. Furthermore, the RPA directed the Forest Service to examine alternative ways to meet U.S. forest resource requirements.

Although the 1974 act directed the secretary of agriculture to formulate national forest management plans, the act lacked guidelines on plan preparation and content. Moreover, the RPA was viewed as inadequate, especially given the Monongahela decision. The NFMA, which was amended to RPA, provided the direction the RPA lacked.


With intensive lobbying from the Forest Service, Congress, conservation groups, and timber interests, the NFMA developed as compromise legislation that blended NEPA with Forest Service tradition, policy, and authority. The 1976 act revolved principally around regulating timber harvesting in national forests; however, the Forest Service also was affected by other NFMA requirements. For example, the agency was called to invite the public to participate in planning, and disciplines other than forestry and engineering were consulted for the development of natural resource management agendas.

Environmental issues such as clear-cutting, species diversity, marginal lands, rotation age, and nondeclining even flow were addressed. Congress authorized clear-cutting only in situations in which it was the optimal timber-harvesting method; however, the Forest Service maintained much discretionary authority in determining the suitability of clear-cutting. Concerning biodiversity, the agency was pressured to maintain feasible populations of native and desirable nonnative vertebrate species, the diversity of tree species existent at the beginning of the management plan, the ecosystems necessary for the survival of endangered species, and biodiversity within managed areas. Marginal lands largely were determined unsuitable for timber production, and the past Forest Service policy of harvesting timber on every acre of land was considered to be not in the public’s interest. The NFMA also called for the establishment of standards relating to rotation age, which ensured that generally mature stands of timber would be harvested. The agency, however, was allowed ample discretion to determine rotation age, and exceptions were permitted after the multiple uses of the forests were considered.

One of the most controversial issues addressed during the NFMA congressional debate related to NDEF. This concept refers to the basic forestry philosophy that annual yield is sustainable in perpetuity. Essentially, it was a regional issue restricted to forest management in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, where old growth stands of timber remained. The Forest Service and preservationists supported NDEF, whereas wood-products industry representatives and economists opposed it. In the end, Congress appeared to support the Forest Service position in maintaining NDEF. Salvage cuts and sanitation cuts were exempted from NDEF requirements, as was harvesting necessary to meet multiple-use goals. Moreover, variable amounts of timber could be harvested from year to year as long as the decennial average was maintained. Although the forest management guidelines became more explicit under the NFMA, and the legislation included directives that were notable departures from Forest Service practices, the Forest Service still maintained significant discretionary authority, and disputes over federal forest management continued.

Significant controversy was ongoing concerning Forest Service efforts to determine wilderness areas—the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE) plans. The Sierra Club filed suit in San Francisco over the first RARE plan, which designated 56 million acres of wilderness, and the case was settled out of court in 1972, when the Forest Service consented to conform to NEPA guidelines before allowing development in roadless areas. In 1978, during the presidential administration of Jimmy Carter, the second RARE study was completed, which designated 66 million acres of wilderness (10 million acres in addition to the land identified by RARE I). Five years later, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the Forest Service had not followed the EIS requirements established by NEPA in the California RARE II study.

Although the NFMA mandated stricter regulation of clear-cutting, the Forest Service continued to depend on this method throughout the 1980’s and spurred much public controversy. By 1992, clear-cutting had fallen into disfavor among many Forest Service foresters, and the agency adopted a policy of avoiding clear-cutting as a timber harvest method whenever possible. This exemplified a shift in the Forest Service mission—from timber production to ecosystem management—that also was characterized by the appointment during Bill Clinton’s administration of wildlife biologist Jack Ward Thomas Thomas, Jack Ward as Forest Service chief. Foresters became less dominant, and landscape architects, botanists, environmental planners, archaeologists, and environmental planners greatly diversified the agency.

In 1989, the Conservation Foundation and the Purdue University Department of Forestry performed an assessment of Forest Service planning. Although the researchers determined that some improvements were desirable—such as the implementation of plans, the agency’s attitude toward public involvement, and appropriations and forest plans—they were largely positive in their evaluation of the NFMA planning process. Their report declared that the plans developed by the agency were the best ever developed and that “citizens’ awareness of national forests is higher than ever before.” Nevertheless, struggles continued between businesses and environmental groups over management policy in the U.S. forests. For example, a decision in 2006 by the Forest Service to eliminate the requirement of environmental impact statements in its overall planning for 155 national forests, while requiring such statements for individual timber sales and the like, provoked opposition from environmentalists. National Forest Management Act (1976) Forest management Natural resources, conservation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aplet, Gregory H., Nels Johnson, Jeffrey T. Olson, and V. Alaric Sample, eds. Defining Sustainable Forestry. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. Excellent anthology is devoted to exploring the objectives of sustainable forestry, the design of ecological systems, and policy considerations. Includes chapter reference lists and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowes, Michael D., and John V. Krutilla. Multiple-Use Management: The Economics of Public Forestlands. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1989. Presents a highly technical in-depth analysis of national forest management economics, largely devoted to multiple-use management applications. Suitable for students of natural resources economics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clawson, Marion. The Economics of National Forest Management. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1976. Presents an excellent synopsis of forest resource management. Useful for students of forestry and forest economics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cubbage, Frederick W., Jay O’Laughlin, and Charles S. Bullock. Forest Resource Policy. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993. Comprehensive textbook examines the processes, participants, and programs relating to forest resource policy that have developed over the past century. Focuses on the United States, although one chapter is devoted to forest resource policy in a global context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dana, Samuel Trask, and Sally K. Fairfax. Forest and Range Policy: Its Development in the United States. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Sound volume on the history of forest and range policy in the United States. Of particular value is the bibliographic essay, which categorizes sources under specific headings of public agencies, such as the Forest Service, the Soil Conservation Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Lawrence S., K. Norman Johnson, Pete Bettinger, and Theodore E. Howard. Forest Management: To Sustain Ecological, Economic, and Social Values. 4th ed. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 2005. Comprehensive volume covers a wide scope of issues related to forest sustainability. Aimed at readers entering the fields of forest management, forest economics, and forest ecology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellefson, Paul V. Forest Resources Policy: Process, Participants, and Programs. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992. Provides an excellent overview of forest resource policy. Includes chapters on policy implementation, evaluation, and termination in addition to discussion of budgetary concerns in forest management. Features a useful glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Toole, Randal. Reforming the Forest Service. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1988. Well-researched critique of Forest Service practices and policies vis-à-vis forest economics proposes radical changes in national forest management. Useful for environmental activists and policy analysts in addition to students of forest resources, conservation, economics, and political science.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robbins, William G. American Forestry. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985. Presents a history of the development of forestry in the United States in relation to cooperation among federal, state, and private interests. Well documented and useful for students of forestry and history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Gordon. The Forest and the Trees: A Guide to Excellent Forestry. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1988. Provides an impressive overview of practices and ideas concerning professional forestry and national forest management. The author is a Sierra Club forester with decades of experience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vaughn, Jacqueline, and Hanna J. Cortner. George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests: Reframing the Environmental Debate. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005. Examines the changes made in U.S. forest policy in the early twenty-first century under the Healthy Forests Initiative introduced by the administration of President George W. Bush.

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Categories: History