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What Is The Forest Service & How To Use National Forests

Aug 26th, 2022

Chances are that you live within at least a few hours of a national forest… or two… or three. 

There are 154 national forests in the United States that are managed by the United States Forest Service, and all of them offer a wealth of outdoor recreation activities that you just can't get anywhere else. You’re probably more likely to find accessible outdoor activities on national forest land than you would on national park land!

The Forest Service offers guidance on everything from hunting to camping to boating, foraging and more, as well as permits to participate in special activities in unique areas. Here is a quick overview of what the USFS is and what type of services it can help you with!

What can you do on a national forest?

What is the Forest Service?

There are a lot of federally controlled lands in the United States. As in, a lot. 

In fact, there are roughly 640 million acres of land owned by the federal government, making up about 28% of the nation’s total land! The Forest Service manages around a quarter of all that land, which includes 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands amounting to 193 million acres!

There is a lot of variety in how different federal lands are managed and enjoyed, ranging from conservation guidelines to recreation rules to permits, fees and more. One of the biggest things that set national forests apart from, say, national parks or state recreation areas, is that the U.S. Forest Service is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture, whereas the others are run by the U.S. Department of the Interior. 

The United States Forest Service as we know it today was established in 1905. It followed the Transfer Act of 1905, which transferred management of the nation’s land reserves from the Interior Department to the then-named Bureau of Forestry, after which the department was renamed to the United States Forest Service. The first U.S. Chief Forester in this newly formed department was Gifford Pinchot, after whom the national forest around Mount St. Helens in Washington is named.

The Forest Service actually predates the National Park Service, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management, all of which were established in 1912, 1956 and 1946, respectively. 

Cool, huh?

Today, the Forest Service’s mission is to “sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” This is done by integrating a variety of factors into how each different forest is run, including any social, economic and ecological factors of local regions. 

This means that the 154 national forests around the country might run differently depending on where you are, but whether you’re in the mountains of Montana, the hills of North Carolina or the grasslands of Texas, the Forest Service is able to provide a valuable list of resources and services to make your time spent in these federal lands a memorable one. 

Services and resources offered by the USFS

Recreation fees and permits

You’ll have to check with each national forest to see what their policies are on permits and fees. In one national forest, for example, you may need to display a recreation pass in your vehicle at trailheads or campsites, while in others you might not. 

Some activities are required to have permits or fees, such as group activities with 75 people or more, weddings, guided trips, for-profit activities and more. You may also need permits to go backpacking or take part in special recreation activities, which include rock climbing, Nordic skiing or boating, to name a few.

Bottom line, just because one national forest has a permit system (or lack thereof), it doesn’t mean that another forest will operate in the same way. Make sure to check each national forest’s rules and regulations to ensure you’re getting the most out of your trip!


Typically, national forests offer a combination of dispersed camping and campsite camping, depending on where you go, of course. 

In addition to practicing leave no trace principles and following the ten essential systems, camping in a national forest requires a high level of self-responsibility. There aren’t always people around to help in an emergency, and visitors are totally subject to the weather, wildlife and hazards common in natural areas.

This is where the Forest Service can come in handy, though. Not only will forest rangers provide permits for dispersed camping, if necessary, but they can offer valuable insight into their forest’s layout, terrain and activities. Call or visit the local ranger station to get information on maps, where to go, what to do and, most importantly, what not to do on your trip.

Hunting & fishing

State laws apply to national forests, even though the lands are run by the federal government, and this includes state laws and regulations on hunting and fishing. And, in special cases, there may be additional rules for fishing on national forest waterways.

The best way to find out exactly what, where and how often you can fish on national forest lands is to consult the local ranger station directly — the same goes for hunting. They will have all the information on the state laws and forest regulations you’ll need to follow, and it will be far easier than trying to track down all the information yourself. 


Did you know that most national forests allow you to cut down your very own Christmas tree? 

Yes! With a small fee in hand, you can head to a ranger station and obtain a permit for cutting your own firewood and Christmas trees, as long as you stick to the guidelines and regulations. Each forest will differ slightly in its rules, dates, areas and times that tree-cutting is allowed, so be sure to plan ahead!

Off-road vehicle trails

Many national forests have off-road vehicle trail systems for public use, provided that the trails stay well-cared for! Your local ranger station will have motor vehicle maps specific to their forest that show all the roads and trails accessible to ORVs. 

On your next visit

So, next time you’re looking for a place to camp, fish, hunt, stargaze, ride ORVs or whatever you enjoy doing, check to see what your nearest national forest can offer! Chances are you’ll get some personalized tips, advice and resources from local forest rangers that will make your trip the best it can be!


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A clear river winding below a tall forested mountain on a cloudy day

Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Kai_Vogel

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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