Significant federal legislation affecting the Forest Service includes the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act, P.L. 86-517; the National Forest Management Act, P.L. 94-588; the National Environmental Policy Act, P.L. 91-190; the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act, P.L. 95-313; the Forest and Rangelands Renewable Resources Planning Act, P.L. 95-307; and the National Forest Management Act of 1976.
In March 2008, the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies asked the GAO to evaluate whether the Forest Service should be moved from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of the Interior, which already includes the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, managing some of public land.
Across the United States, there are 155 national forests, organized into ranger districts employing district rangers and other personnel. The districts construct and maintain trails, operate campgrounds, regulate grazing, patrol wilderness areas, protect culturally significant heritage sites, and manage vegetation and wildlife habitat. The Forest Service also has seven regional research stations, including the International Institute of Tropical Forestry and Forest Products Laboratory, that study the ecosystems of the national forests. The Forest Service also provides funding and technical assistance to non-federal land owners through a branch called State and Private Forestry.
Although a large volume of timber is logged every year, not all National Forests are entirely forested. There are tidewater glaciers in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and ski areas such as Alta, Utah in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. In addition, the Forest Service is responsible for managing National Grasslands in the midwest. Furthermore, areas designated as wilderness by acts of Congress, prohibit logging, mining, road and building construction and land leases for purposes of farming and or livestock grazing.
The U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations unit (LEI), headquartered in Washington, D.C., is a federal law enforcement agency of the U.S. government. It is responsible for enforcement of federal laws and regulations governing national forest lands and resources. Special agents are primarily used for investigations. Patrols are done primarily by uniformed law enforcement officers, all of whom carry firearms. The LEI also has K-9 and mounted police units.
The history of the Forest Service has been fraught with controversy, as various interests and national values have grappled with the appropriate management of the many resources within the forests. These values and resources include grazing, timber, mining, recreation, and wildlife habitat. Because of continuing development elsewhere, the large size of National Forests have made them de facto wildlife reserves for a number of rare and common species. In recent decades, the importance of mature forest for the spotted owl and a number of other species led to great changes in timber harvest levels.
In August 1944, to reduce the number of forest fires, the Forest Service and the Wartime Advertising Council began distributing fire education posters featuring a Black Bear. The poster campaign was a success; the Black Bear would later be named "Smokey Bear," and would, for decades, be the "spokesbear" for the Forest Service. Smokey Bear has appeared in untold TV commercials; his popular catch phrase, "Only YOU can prevent forest fires", is one of the most widely recognized slogans in the United States. A recent study found that 95% of the people surveyed could complete the phrase when given the first few words. Unfortunately, in certain fire-adapted ecosystems the ensuing decades of fire suppression unintentionally caused a buildup of fuels that replaced the historically natural fire regime of slow-burning, relatively cool fires with fast-burning, relatively hot wildfires in the fire-adapted forest lands across the nation.
Another controversial issue is the policy on road building within the National Forests. In 1999 President Clinton ordered a temporary moratorium on new road construction in the National Forests to "assess their ecological, economic, and social values and to evaluate long-term options for their management." Five and half years later the Bush administration replaced this with a system where each state could petition the Forest Service to open forests in their territory to road building.