How Many Agencies Does It Take?

I said I would write more about reorganizing the Forest Service.  Before we take a deeper dive, let’s look at our current land management structure.  The Department of Agriculture oversees the US Forest Service.  The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of land, much of which is forests.  The Department of Interior oversees the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.  The BLM manages a total of 247 million acres, 58 million of which is managed under Forests and Woodlands.  The National Park Service (NPS) manages our National Parks, National Monuments, Historical Sites, and National Recreation Areas.

Why are we managing lands under two separate departments?  It doesn’t make sense to me.  I could see it if the two departments were managing lands for completely different purposes.  For example, one could manage Wilderness, National Parks, and Monuments while the other managed the remaining land for forest products, recreation, and other natural values.  These would be separate strategies that would require different competencies.

In reality, we have two federal departments and two bureaucratic land management agencies essentially doing the same thing in slightly different ways.  In many cases, within proximity to one another.  There are protected landscapes in both the Forest Service and BLM, while the National Parks Service primary focus is managing special places and recreation areas.

Before we rebuild one agency like the USFS, we should look at all federal land management.  We need to look at all the forest lands owned by the people of this country and design a better way of doing business.  We need to identify the areas that are Parks, Wilderness, Monuments, and other protected areas and put those into one silo to be managed accordingly.  The remaining lands need to be identified as needing management with a conservation focus or an active management focus.  These conservation and actively managed lands could be under one umbrella.

What does this mean in practical terms?  We take all 440 million acres of federally owned lands (247 million acres of BLM-Department of Interior and 193 million acres of USFS-Department of Agriculture) and design a management system that best fits those lands.  Having two departments with two sets of overhead, regional, and local offices doesn’t make good fiscal sense if they are essentially doing the same thing.

NPS can adapt to manage Parks, Wilderness, and other protected lands.

We could easily take all the protected lands and put those under the management of the NPS.  The active management areas and conservation areas can be managed by merging the BLM and the USFS and create a Federal Land Management Agency.  This new agency needs to set up to effectively OVERSEE the management of our federal lands under the direction of the Department of Interior.  This means that we need to design a process of oversight, not implementation.

The USFS could continue to support forest research.  Research stations are creating a great deal of good work.  I would, however, suggest that we make sure that a connection between land management, recreation, and the forest industry when selecting work.  Creating documents for the sake of research without seeking to influence an outcome should be avoided.  I have read many reports with countless hours of research behind them. Unfortunately, many are presented in a unit of measure that cannot be used or understood by industry professionals.

There are 35,000* people working within the USFS, 21,651* people working within the NPS, and people 11,621 (additional 30,860 volunteers) * working within the BLM.  All three agencies have a combined budget of nearly $10 billion.  It certainly shouldn’t take 100,000 people and $10 Billion to manage our federal lands.  We need to do better.

The United States looks especially inept when you look at a place like British Columbia in Canada.  They manage over 230 million acres with a total of 3,800 people.  For a better indication of how British Columbia manages their resources here is the Service Plan from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations.


The purpose here isn’t to embarrass these agencies and their employees.  The goal should be to create a land management strategy and vision that works for the American People.  We need to design an agency that can carry out the tasks to meet those high-level objectives.

An interesting note, this isn’t the first time this has happened in the United States.  President Herbert Hoover signed the Reorganization Act of 1933 that was put into place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  We need a new Reorganization Act of 2017 to correct the mess that we have today.

One recurring concern that we’ve heard from Forest Service leadership for years is that they do not have enough people or money to carry out the much-needed work on the ground.  The facts tell a different story.

More to come……….


*All employment data pulled from Wikipedia

19 thoughts on “How Many Agencies Does It Take?”

    1. Not exactly Russia. If you meant Russ, then you would be correct. All content to this point has been original content created by me, Russ Vaagen. The exception would be the links to other media.


  1. Russ,
    Based on your numbers, it looks like our paid 67,000 Federal Govt land managers are managing our lands at a cost of $22.72/acre, with each employee averaging 6,567 acres. (It doesn’t seem relevant to include volunteers in the employee data. )

    What is the comparable per acre cost (and acres/employee) of industrial managed lands?

    1. Eric, I’d be happy to look into it. I agree on the part-time and volunteer labor part. I’m not necessarily trying to get to a cost comparison. I simply think it demonstrates that the agencies are so far away from their core mission to get things done that both employment and cost have gotten out of control.

      Let’s be honest, we don’t expect government to provide much of anything at the most competitive cost. That being said, it should be explainable and in the realm of reason.

      Lastly, industrial land management costs vary great depending on the growth rates, type of harvest, and other factors. We would need to break the operable acres out for each area, comparing them to only the managed areas for the FS or BLM. This gets muddy really quickly when you see how agencies spread their cost in so many areas not directly tied to management. I’m not trying to dodge your question, I just know it’s a great deal of work and nearly impossible to get a apples to apples comparison.

      Thanks for engaging!

    2. I am a private consulting forester in Vermont, managing mostly smaller parcels 50-500 acres, so we do not have the luxury of larger tracts which would reduce costs. We manage about 45,000 acres with myself and 1.5 employees. We look at ever section, almost every tree, every ten years. Our silviculture is top notch, and most of our lands are managed as “multiple use” and “sustained yield”. On these lands, we harvest more timber than the entire Green Mountain NF with over 400,000 acres and a huge staff. So I would say, with intensive management, that each forester should be able to intensively manage about 20,000 acres. Add some for support staff,and subtract some for less intensive management.

    3. I am a private consulting forester in Vermont, managing mostly smaller parcels 50-500 acres, so we do not have the luxury of larger tracts which would reduce costs. We manage about 45,000 acres with myself and 1.5 employees. We look at ever section, almost every tree, every ten years. Our silviculture is top notch, and most of our lands are managed as “multiple use” and “sustained yield”. On these lands, we harvest more timber than the entire Green Mountain NF with over 400,000 acres and a huge staff. So I would say, with intensive management, that each forester should be able to intensively manage about 20,000 acres. Add some for support staff,and subtract some for less intensive management. That should work out to $3-4 per acre.

      1. You’re not managing private lands for multiple use as the Forest Service is. You’re managing for one thing only: timber production. You’re focused on profits. The forest service is managing wilderness, recreation, wildlife, fisheries, botany, and more. The national forests were not intended to simply turn profits. They are multiple use. Being a Vermonter myself I know exactly what the private, industrial timberlands look like in my home state and the rest of the northeast and there would be a massive public outcry if our national forests looked the same. I recall one of my classmates working with Plum Creek years ago literally driving around looking for timber that was of a barely merchantable size to cut because they couldn’t find anything to cut. Their trees were just sticks, saplings and pole size. Heavily harvested by them, Champion previously, etc. They got fined for their current use violations and fought it tooth and nail in the courts in Vermont.

        1. CJ, I don’t think anyone is advocating for what you are describing. Plum Creek was known as the “Darth Vader” of the timber industry in the 80’s. I don’t agree with the way they used to manage and believe that public lands need to be managed much differently. I’m a strong advocate of thinning and restoration treatments based on getting forests back to a historic range of variability. Clearcutting for the benefit of just one stakeholder (sawmills) isn’t what we’re doing. We are working with major conservation groups to create templates that work with everyone, learning with each project.


        2. Actually, you are not correct. I am managing “non-industrial” private lands for family ownerships, mostly. A small return on investment, or at least covering costs is often a goal, but these landowners ARE managing for a mixed bag of wildlife, recreation, aesthetic and other goals, even maintenance of “old forests”.

  2. Right on Russ,,,keep the questions and commentary coming.
    Chris Brong. Skamania County Commissioner, retired.

  3. A couple of thoughts on this topic. You have neglected to include USFWS that manages about 70 million acres of public lands and is in Interior, should be included in this discussion. Coincidentally, the USFWS sells timber and by all accords does it rather well when it meets their mission statement. The Park service can and does “dispose” of timber to meet management goals.

    Moving USFS over to Interior has been proposed over the years but for political reasons remained in USDA even though their budget comes through the Interior Appropriations. In the mid 80’s a great deal of time, energy and money was expended during the “BLM/USFS Interchange effort, although few recommendations were carried out, again due to political reasons.

    Numerous states manage forest lands with differing constraints either due to management plans, legal constraints or based on how they became state managed lands. The feds can and do this already. Both the forest service and BLM management lands with differing management constraints, including wilderness, monument status and multiple use objectives. The park service and FWS is more single focus while allowing other uses if they move towards their primary focus. The professionals all come from the same schools and have the similar skills and abilities. So, combining agencies may eliminate some of the inefficiencies caused by duplication, and personnel passing each other on the highways going to the woods, or rangelands.

    I’ll wait to see if anything comes from this. Is there actually a real proposal beyond simple talking about it?

    1. Scott, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. You’re right. I didn’t take into account the USFWS. I probably missed more than I could even come up with. I started out just comparing the USFS to the Canadian Ministry of Forests, and then my research turned my post into more than that. It just creates all kinds of excellent questions.

      The real proposal questions is a good one. I have been working with members of Congress and the Senate on multiple proposals over the last 5 years. Some I have been part of the draft, others I have been asked to contribute ideas or critiques. Through this process, I have come to the realization that if we wait for someone to deliver something to us, we will be sorely mistaken. I have a series of ideas that will address each aspect of the USFS. Before I actually draft something, I want to make sure that a major re-organization isn’t coming. I’ve heard a few rumblings but seen nothing.

      Everyone has ideas, I just happen to have a blog too.


  4. Russ,

    Thank you for what you are doing.

    Having spent a lifetime surrounded by — and using permits — of both USFS and BLM, and having worked for the USFS, then later spending 6 years on a BLM Resource Advisory Council, I’d like to point out one major player who is REALLY dictating land management decisions. That would be the “The Courts” enabled by a group of NGO’s who protest every management decision and sue frivolously at the taxpayer’s expense while resource managers are required to foot their own legal bills. The agencies end up spending as much as 90% of their budgets (taxpayer dollars) fighting frivolous lawsuits and fulfilling frivolous FOIA requests which takes away from on-the-ground management. They’re forced to fiddle, whether they want to–or not– while the forests burn.

    You are absolutely right that there needs to be a restructuring. I am thrilled today to see that a westerner, familiar with the issues has been appointed as Secretary of the Interior! We have a window of opportunity to put agendas aside and manage for the health of the resources. A good start would be to make NGO’s pay for their own challenges.

    Maybe I should also mention, that in the course of managing over 300,000 acres of western ranchlands for a profitable ranch for almost 40 years, we were awarded 6 national environmental stewardship awards, an EPA regional award, and numerous lower level environmental-related awards. The frosting on the cake was probably the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Private Lands Stewardship Award. All this while running a sustainable cattle ranch, logging certain areas, supporting multiple species of wildlife and big game, including “protected” species, and managing numerous mountain streams–some of which are seed sources for 100% pure westslope cutthroat trout. It can be done.

    The right balance is beneficial — and necessary — for the health of the resources, as well as for those who make their living managing/harvesting those resources–both public and private. USFS and BLM are not the only land in the landscape. Management problems such as fire and noxious weeds don’t recognize ownership.

    Periodic harvest every bit as important as periodic rest. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a business, your yard, or federal lands.

    1. I appreciate Sue’s comments above. Excellent stewardship takes a commitment to the land, and can result in profitable operations. Federal land management is by definition, somewhat detached from actual consequences and hugely inefficient. Their “multiple use” model often has a designated primary use, (which often translates to “no use”.) whereas on private lands we practice true multiple use on most acres. Are you familiar with Mike MacMurray, forestry photographer from Bend Oregon, and Jim Peterson from the Evergreen Foundation? I think you will find kindred spirits with quite a bit of wisdom for this process.

    2. Sue, thank you and great points. The lawsuit deal is an interesting one. I tend to agree and think we need a much better dispute resolution system than leaning on the Equal Access to Justice to pay legal fees when groups can cite a procedural issue rather than a substantive one. Collaboration has helped our Collaborative groups avoid many challenges and lawsuits. To the tune of 40 successful projects with only one appeal that was handled out of court. We’ve had one go to the local superior court and then appealed to the 9th Circut, only to uphold the lower court’s decision not to intervene. Something no one said was possible. We have a larger hearing scheduled for this summer, but we have the support of many regional and national groups because of the intensive collaboration that went into designing the project.

      It’s my opinion that the USFS hadn’t been proactive enough about collaborative involvement on their own in the past. This left them open to unfavorable legal opinions. The agency opted to put more research and study into the projects to legally defend them rather than reaching out to potential objectors/appellants to build a project around specific interests and concerns. Once you get a critical mass of agreement, which we consider social license, it makes the argument of an odd, non-participating group seem almost silly.

      I think we need to get to the point where we have arbitration that is defined by a short period (60 or 90 days) of review where challengers must bring an alternative solution. This would not be covered by Equal Access to Justice because it would be part of the collaborative process and only eligible on collaborated active management and conservation management areas.

      These problems have solutions. We just need to create them.

      Thanks again,


  5. Russ,

    This topic has come up before, back in the early 1990s, and it’s an important one. I applaud you for bringing it up, and especially for doing so in such a thoughtful and respectful tone. I see that some of the comments follow your lead.

    Having worked in depth with all the agencies during my whole career, I’m amazed at the distinct difference in culture between them. Some are more adept at collaboration than others, and sometimes the differences are significant even within agencies and between individuals. I wonder how restructuring the agencies — assuming for a moment that this is a valid goal — can be accomplished so that it strikes a good balance between local solutions based on collaboration, while at the same time respecting the fact that national public lands belong to all, including those who don’t have a seat at the table. That balancing act is a tough nut to crack.


    1. Ray,

      Thanks for you and Headwaters do in the federal forest space. Important work that we reference regularly. I think my point is that we start to talk about “fixing the Forest Service” we sometimes forget about the other federal lands. It deserves a discussion. I think it’s more prudent to make some much-needed changes at the Forest Service first. Then it would be a good idea to get a group together of conservation, forest industry, grazing, recreation, and economic interests to provide some recommendations on the Agency situation.

      In the meantime, we need to keep pressing forward to help our federal forests improve from where they are currently.

      Thanks for reading and providing insight.


Comments are closed.