Let me be upfront: my day job is working for the United States Forest Service. While I like sharing my thoughts on hunting, fishing and the outdoors, I am neither proficient nor productive enough to make a living as a writer. That said, I was blessed as a youth to grow up where I always was able to wander in the woods near my homes in Utah, Colorado and Oregon.
At that time I did not understand or even question why I was allowed to cross forested lands or fish miles of bubbling streams as if they were mine. It wasn’t until I attended Utah State University in the 1980s that I began to understand much of that land was managed by the Forest Service and because these were public lands, I did own them. At college I became so enamored with public lands, my master’s and doctoral degrees worked on topics important to the Forest Service. As I have come to understand the history of the Forest Service, however, one of the most interesting points is this agency came to being almost by accident.
Most Forest Service lands are in the West, and that is the product of timing. When the Forest Reserve Act allowed presidents from 1891 to 1907 to establish what became National Forests, the only lands available were in the West. A total of four presidents set lands aside under this law. The vast majority, approximately 150 million acres, were set aside by the accidental president Teddy Roosevelt. Most National Forests, including the Wasatch, Cache and Caribou, were born at that time.
The next lands to be managed by the Forest Service came with the passing of the Weeks Act in 1911. This law was passed because many people in the East were concerned that decades of poor logging practices were degrading the quality of water used by downstream communities. This led to 20 million acres of Forest Service managed lands in the East that now serves as the playground for many of the nation’s largest cities.
The last expansion of the National Forest System came during the Dust Bowl era when damaged agricultural lands were purchased under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 in order to reduce soil loss. These lands were eventually designated as National Grasslands and in 1960 transferred to the Forest Service. The closest of these, the Curlew National Grassland, can be found about an hour drive northwest of Cache Valley in Southern Idaho.
As a result of these uncoordinated and unplanned acquisitions, the Forest Service now manages 193 million acres across the 154 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands in 43 states. The vast majority of these lands (nearly 99 percent) are generally open — there are seasonal closures for things such as fires — to hunting and fishing. On those lands, there are over 220,000 miles of fishable streams and 10 million acres of fishable lakes and reservoirs that can be accessed by the public.
In the West these lands provide the public the opportunity to hunt deer, elk, bear, cougar, moose, sheep, goats and antelope. Although not ideal for many upland bird species, local forests provide chances to hunt forest grouse and turkeys. Scattered ponds provide some prospects of jump-shooting waterfowl, and the local national grassland has sharp-tailed grouse.
Although these lands were not set aside to protect rare species, they have become essential to the protection and restoration of depleted populations of grizzly bear, wolverine, lynx and salmon. Many of these species need large areas of connected habitats to persist. Without the millions of acres of Forest Service lands, some of these species would likely be at even greater risk of extinction.
It is also clear I am not the only one who plays on Forest Service-managed lands. Recent estimates suggest activities on Forest Service land contributes more than $13 billion to the national economy and supports over 200,000 jobs. Closer to home, the people in the Utah and Idaho House Districts that include Cache Valley spend over $4 billion a year on outdoor recreation. Our favorite pastimes include camping, trail sports, off-roading and fishing. A large proportion of these activities occur on Forest Service-managed lands.
It is easy to take access to these lands for granted. But in my opinion this valley would be a much different and far poorer place to live if it wasn’t surrounded by public lands managed by the Forest Service.