Governance Structure

United States Forest Governance Structure

The United States utilizes a broad array of laws, regulations, policy instruments, capacity building programs, and best management practices to enforce and promote legal and sustainable forest management.  The diversity of these approaches and their democratic underpinnings are a fundamental characteristic of our governmental structure and forest policy and management in the U.S.    

Federal public lands

Several federal agencies have a role in managing federal public forest land. The following federal agencies are most involved in implementing and enforcing laws regarding management of federal forest lands:

  • USDA Forest Service
  • Department of the Interior (DOI) Fish and Wildlife Service
  • DOI Bureau of Land Management
  • DOI National Park Service​​

State and private lands

It is important to recognize that timber harvesting laws regulating State and Private Lands (which represent the largest portion of forest land in the U.S.) are mainly enacted, implemented, and enforced at the state level. Hence, the State level forestry and environmental regulatory agencies play a significant role in regulation of forestry activities in their State and determination of legality of timber harvests.

  • In 2000, 1,453 state government agencies or entities (departments, bureaus, divisions, and commissions) were known to implement policies and programs that influenced the condition (use, management, protection) of non-federal forests (Ellefson et al., 2001 and 2002).
  • Of that total, approximately 540 were engaged in some manner in the regulation of forestry practices on non-federal forests, 37 of which had regulatory functions as their sole responsibility (issuance of permits, enforcement of rules, licensing of occupations). The remaining 500 or so entities of state government exercised regulatory duties that were viewed as part of broader program responsibilities focused on non-federal forests (for example, chemical and pesticide abatement, resource protection [fire, insects, diseases], water pollutant management, air pollutant management, forest and wildlife management, mine and mineral reclamation, watershed and wetland management, waste management, and public health programs).

Native Lands 

According to federal law in the United States, a federally recognized tribe is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is acknowledged as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States, with the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations attached to that designation which is eligible for funding and services from federal agencies.

Furthermore, federally recognized tribes are recognized as possessing certain inherent rights of self-government (i.e., tribal sovereignty) and are entitled to receive certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of their special relationship with the United States. At present, there are 567 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages.

Tribes possess all powers of self-government except those relinquished under treaty with the United States, those that Congress has expressly extinguished, and those that federal courts have ruled are subject to existing federal law or are inconsistent with overriding national policies. Tribes, therefore, possess the right to form their own governments; to make and enforce laws, both civil and criminal; to tax; to establish and determine membership (i.e., tribal citizenship); to license and regulate activities within their jurisdiction; to zone; and to exclude persons from tribal lands. Limitations on inherent tribal powers of self-government are few, but do include the same limitations applicable to states, e.g., neither tribes nor states have the power to make war, engage in foreign relations, or print and issue currency.

The ‘federal Indian trust responsibility’ is a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation on the part of the United States to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages.