National Forest Management Act (NFMA) Essay

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The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976 (NFMA) is the principal statute governing the administration of the national forests. The act is an amendment to the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974, which called for the management of renewable resources on national forest lands. The 1976 legislation reorganized and expanded the 1974 act, requiring the Secretary of Agriculture to assess forest lands and develop and implement a resource management plan, regularly revised, for each forest unit. NFMA also set standards and procedures for timber harvesting.

The amended act emerged out of controversy over clear-cutting practices in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia and the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana. Throughout the late 1960s, efforts by West Virginia legislators and conservation organizations culminated in a successful legal battle to stop clear-cutting practices in the Monongahela. During the same period, a University of Montana study led by Arnold Bolle concluded that management of the Bitterroot National Forest was focused almost solely on maximum timber yields, leading to serious ecological problems. In the years after these debates, courts throughout the United States applied the Monongohela decision to shut down timber sales elsewhere in the national forest system. Facing a serious challenge to its ability to govern national forests, and an equally serious challenge to the viability of commercial timber production on federal lands, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) pursued a comprehensive legislative remedy to the problem of timber harvesting practices on federal land.

Two competing legislative solutions sought to resolve the problem of timber production in the national forests. One, sponsored by West Virginia Senator Jennings Randolph and written with the help of Arnold Bolle and others, enjoyed the broad support of conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club, which saw in the act a means to increase public participation in forest planning, increase transparency in USFS decision making, and reduce the power of the timber lobby in setting forest planning agenda. However, the bill that ultimately became NFMA was one sponsored by Senator Hubert Humphrey and strongly supported by the timber industry.

NFMA added prescriptive requirements related to the identification of various uses and provided specific limits to timber harvests of the national forests. In January 2005 the USFS issued a new forest planning rule creating a sweeping categorical exclusion from its previous obligation to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) during forest planning. These new standards release the USFS from meeting specific environmental outcomes in operation, and instead dictate process standards. In regard to public lands management, the changes have been presented as an attempt to streamline forest planning and direct resources away from lengthy planning processes prescribed by NFMA.


  1. Le Master, Decade of Change: The Remaking of Forest Service Statutory Authority during the 1970s (Greenwood Press, 1984);
  2. Wilkinson and M. Anderson, Land and Resource Planning in the National Forests (Island Press, 1987).

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