National Forests: What Are They? 

BY ANASTASIA MELNICK

By visiting a national forest, you can discover nature through recreation, usually without the distraction of large crowds you might find in national parks. These federally protected and managed areas throughout the country are open for activities, such as camping, hiking, horseback riding, cycling, paddling, birding, fishing and more. 

The major difference between national forests and national parks is the extraction of natural resources. National parks are areas of preservation, which means the land is barely altered. National forests, although protected by the government, allow controlled harvesting of resources through logging, mining, hunting and fishing. They are intended to be areas that sustain their own health as well as encourage productivity. In the Northwest alone, national forests occupy nearly 132,000 square miles, an area slightly larger than Finland. 

National forests provide many outdoor recreation opportunities, whether you’re after an adrenaline rush by climbing, skiing or mountain biking or after a softer adventure like day hiking, picnicking or a scenic drive. 

A drop-in at the ranger station will give you all the recreation information for that ranger district in the national forest you’re visiting. Some national forests even have cultural sites and visitor centers that provide educational resources. The United States Forest Service has programs that are designed to get people engaged with nature. These programs, especially curated toward children, emphasize the importance of sustainable forest management. 

The mountains, rivers, and unique flora and fauna allow visitors to enjoy day trips as well as camping overnight. There are many campgrounds that contain cabins, which are perfect if you’re looking for a more comfortable lodging option. Or you can enjoy the experience in a tent or RV. Most campsites are accessible to everyone, only costing a small fee. There are also more isolated camping spots allowing complete solitude, which are dispersed throughout national forests and normally available at no charge. Be aware that you cannot camp anywhere in a national forest, but only in specific locations designated by the Forest Service. An isolated campsite provides an experience you won’t find in a campground. You get to enjoy the forest in complete solitude, and you do not need to make a reservation beforehand. National Forest camping, whether it is at a campground or a more remote spot, is the perfect getaway to enjoy the Northwest’s natural wonders.

How It All Began

The National Forest System was established and implemented at the turn of the 20th century. The Land Revision Act of 1891, also known as the General Revision Act, reversed previous policies and made natural resources more accessible to the public. A decade later, the United States Forest Service was created, which manages and protects the country’s national forests. Throughout its century-long history, the rules and regulations governing national forests have fluctuated and evolved. For example, federal legislation has been put in place to ensure more sustainable resource extraction, like sustainable timber extraction and reforestation. 

Do Your Part

  • Be prepared; download map apps.
  • Avoid peak times; try midweek.
  • Park legally; don’t block roads.
  • Stay on designated trails.
  • Pack it in, pack it out.
  • Follow fire-safety rules.
  • Keep wildlife wild; don’t feed them.
  • Use toilets; if none, bag it and pack it.
  • Lend a hand by volunteering (usda.gov/working-with-us/volunteers/opportunities).

Know Before You Go

A pass is needed to use national forest areas. The versatile Interagency Annual Pass includes sites operated by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Purchase this pass at store.usgs.gov/pass/index.html. For camping reservations, facility rentals and tour tickets go to recreation.gov. To learn more about the National Forests, visit the United States Forest Service (USFS) at fs.usda.gov.

Wilderness Areas

Through the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress established designated areas within National Forests that are to remain untouched, meaning the extraction of the area’s natural resources is prohibited. Human activities in these wilderness areas are limited to scientific study and non-motorized recreation. The wilderness areas were set aside to keep the ecosystems intact, as well as to allow cultural history to be preserved. The existence of these regions allows threatened and endangered species to maintain a better chance of survival. 

In the United States, there are more than 800 wilderness areas for you to explore. One example of a wilderness area in the Northwest is Mount Adams, located at the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington. As one of the major Cascade peaks, popular recreation includes hiking and climbing. Each year, hundreds of people adventurously climb to the top of Mount Adams. If you are interested in a less extreme experience, the wilderness area contains a number of hiking trails, providing the best views of the many glaciers, streams, parklands, lava flows, rimrocks and other natural wonders. By visiting the different wilderness areas throughout the Northwest, you will get the once-in-a-lifetime experience of immersing yourself in the environment in its natural state. 

To learn more about wilderness areas, visit fs.usda.gov/managing-land/wilderness