“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

The father of American conservationism, Theodore Roosevelt, once said, “we have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.” The heritage he spoke of was the vast wilderness of the western United States, unspoiled and unfettered by the wheels and steel of industry. He saw the wild frontiers of North America not as an untapped mine ripe with mineral wealth, but as the greatest treasure to ever be bestowed upon any nation. And that it was up to us, the American public, to protect it in perpetuity.

A Legacy of Conservation

Roosevelt’s resolute devotion to the environment would lead him to create the United States Forest Service, an agency that has managed the National Forest System for over a century. To this day, their mission has remained in line with Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas of preserving the nation’s forests for the good of the environment and the enjoyment of its citizens. The agency’s biggest tasks have always revolved around preserving watersheds, managing timber resources, wildlife habitat, ensuring public access to the 154 national forests currently under its care, and managing wildfires in the arid forests of the western U.S.; a task that consumes 42% of the agency’s $5.5 billion budget.

Historically, the U.S. Forest Service’s activities have always focused on research and management, leaving public engagement to its non-profit partners. But by the start of the 1990s, it became clear that the National Forest System needed a new public-facing organization that could introduce the national forests to a new generation of eco-conscious citizens. This ultimately led Congress to create the National Forest Foundation, a non-profit partner to work with local community organizations and the U.S. Forest Service to restore and preserve our nation’s forests.

Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences

Since its founding, the National Forest Foundation (NFF) has worked to get Americans involved with their national forests through a number of different programs. One of its principal conservation efforts is the Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences campaign, a years-long effort to restore natural areas in 14 iconic national forests. These restoration efforts provide support for a number of different projects, ranging from trail restoration to restoring watersheds that provide water for cities like Denver and Salt Lake. For example, the Deschutes National Forest of Oregon, an angler’s and hiker’s paradise that lies in the heart of Central Oregon, benefited from the Treasured Landscapes campaign through comprehensive watershed restoration and extensive trail restoration and building, including a new ADA-accessible overlook that provides access to a spectacular vista for all visitors.

Other national forests that have benefited from Treasured Landscapes include the Angeles National Forest in California, as well as White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. Though these two forests are separated by an entire continent, they have a shared history of ecological disaster. In 2009, the Angeles National Forest was engulfed in flames by the Station wildfire. More than half of the vegetation in the Big Tujunga Canyon, just 20 miles outside of Los Angeles, was consumed by the flames, destroying acres upon acres of forest. To aid in its recovery, the NFF planted close to one million trees in the Angeles National Forest and remained vigilant in removing invasive plant species before they could gain a foothold on the newly barren land.

A few years later, the White Mountain National Forest saw massive flooding brought upon by the arrival of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. The storm dropped over eleven inches of rain on White Mountain within the span of just one hour, causing widespread damage to trails, natural wildlife corridors, campgrounds, and recreational areas. The trail infrastructure lost to Irene amounted to $10 million worth of damage, and its impact on the area is still visible through the number of fallen trees and damaged trails that run through it. But thanks to the Treasured Landscapes campaign, the NFF has been able to gather volunteers and resources to help restore, repair, and rebuild trail access throughout White Mountain. Equal priority has also been given to restoring aquatic habitats throughout the rivers and streams of White Mountain, helping to protect the local watershed from further damage. Though there are still many sites within the forest that remain damaged from Tropical Storm Irene; the NFF’s continued support for the region will allow White Mountain to remain open for recreation for years to come.

Trees for US

As part of their restoration efforts, the NFF developed the Trees for US program, a program that allows American businesses and individuals to contribute toward reforestation of deforested National Forest lands. With donations from corporations, small businesses, and individuals, the NFF focuses on planting native seedlings in areas of the National Forest System that have been disturbed by natural disasters such as wildfire, insect and disease infestations, or wind storms. To accomplish this, the NFF works very closely with the U.S. Forest Service to identify areas that will benefit the most from reforestation, and further collaborates in the design process for each reforestation plan. The NFF also engages with many different partners to provide funding for the implementation of these restoration projects. In turn, the NFF helps their partners by co-promoting their partnership and supporting communications and outreach about the partnership.

Each project sponsored by the Trees for US program is different. In the dry conifer forests of the western U.S., where wildfires are more common, the NFF invests in projects to restore wildfire damage. In the Midwest, much of the NFF’s work is focused on planting native trees to enhance wildlife habitat for threatened and endangered species that rely on a specific type of forest cover to survive. In the eastern U.S., much of the NFF’s work is focused on improving species diversity in the forest to make them more resilient to disturbance events like insect infestations. There are myriad benefits to planting trees in national forests, including but not limited to: enhancing wildlife habitat, sequestering carbon, and restoring watersheds. Through the Trees for US program, the NFF has planted more than 5 million native seedlings in high priority areas of the National Forest System.

Getting America Out the Door

A growing area of concern for the NFF, as well as many public health experts, is the decreasing physical activity of America’s youth. Compared to previous generations, kids spend much less time outdoors and as a result spend less time being physically active; a problem that directly contributes to the declining fitness of today’s children. A lack of outdoor experience also leaves children without an appreciation for nature and knowledge of the environment, knowledge that is vital to ensuring that the public maintains its role as caretakers for the nation’s forests and resources.

The NFF has embarked on a number of youth initiatives to get kids back in the outdoors. Among these are youth stewardship programs that engage younger students in restoration activities ranging from pulling invasive weeds to building new trails. Along the way, students learn about the ecology of their local national forest, gaining insight into the complexity of the ecosystem and its importance to society. Such outdoor activities are great for improving students’ focus and cooperative skills, especially for those who live in busy urban environments where distractions abound. But the benefits of the outdoors go beyond that for children, with multiple studies showing that time spent outdoors helps to alleviate stress and depression, as well as improves the cognitive and emotional development of children.

Other initiatives are focused on getting the whole family outside, such as the many “Friends of the Forest” days organized between the NFF and local environmental organizations. These volunteer days bring families together to help cleanup nearby forests and grasslands, removing literal tons of trash from the environment. Events like these help to cement the values of conservation within the family and ties people together through their mutual admiration for our national forests. They also serve to strengthen the many different partnerships that the NFF has with local environmental organizations, many of which form around a specific national forest.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The National Forest Foundation, along with the U.S. Forest Service, embodies the American spirit of conservation. Together, they have helped to preserve 193 million acres of forests and grasslands throughout our nation, the same lands that Theodore Roosevelt considered to be our national heritage. But the NFF has done more than that specifically. It has reawakened our awareness of the struggles faced by our national forests, from climate change to long-burning wildfires. It has taught many Americans to see our national forests not as tracts of land rife with resources, but as a whole ecosystem that provides for both wildlife and people.

As the decades roll on and new challenges are faced, the dedicated people of the National Forest Foundation will be there to ensure that these lands remain healthy for generations to come. As for right now, these are your forests. Go play in them: