Understanding the Forest Service

A Forest Service employee and a girl look down at the shallow water they are standing in.

This page provides a brief overview of the Forest Service, its organizational structure, and the responsibilities of the different parts of the organization. Familiarity with this structure will help partners understand the role of key individuals within the Forest Service and those they may work with in a partnership.

Specifically, this page will highlight:  

  • The overall structure of the Forest Service.

  • Details associated with the three branches of the Forest Service and how they work together.

  • Forest Service personnel that partners commonly work with.

The Forest Service website provides additional information about the agency, its programs, and the public lands it manages.

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Forest Service Structure

There is more to the Forest Service than the 192 million acres it manages in the National Forests and Grasslands. The Forest Service is made up of four branches. They are:

National Forest System

The National Forest System (NFS) encompasses 193 million acres of public land managed by the Forest Service. A Deputy Chief is assigned to oversee the National Forest System. The Deputy Chief reports to the Chief. Including the WO, there are four levels of National Forest System offices and each level provides a different aspect of leadership and a different level of authority.


The NFS has nine Regions, each with a headquarters often referred to as an RO (Regional Office).  The highest authority in each Regional Office is the Regional Forester, who reports to the Chief. Among other duties, Regional Office staff coordinate activities within the Region and allocate budgets to the forests. Guidance on contracting, grants and agreements is often provided at this level. Each Region has a partnership staff person or liaison assigned to work with National Forest employees and partners.  Their job is to provide assistance in overcoming partnership barriers and promoting partnership activities.

National Forests

Perhaps the most familiar unit in the National Forest System are the National Forests and Grasslands. There are 155 National Forests and 20 Grasslands. The person in charge of a National Forest or Grassland is the Forest Supervisor and they report directly to the Regional Forester. Each unit has its headquarters located within the Supervisor's Office (often referred to as the SO). The SO coordinates activities and priorities within the forest or grassland, allocates the forest level budget and provides technical assistance.   


Each National Forest or Grassland is made up of Ranger Districts. A District Ranger is in charge of the activities at this level and reports to the Forest Supervisor. The Ranger Districts direct many on-the-ground activities, including operating campgrounds, restoring watershed, maintaining trails and managing vegetation and wildlife habitat. Ranger Districts often have the closest connection to local communities and on-the-ground activities.

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State & Private Forestry

The State and Private Forestry (S&PF) branch of the Forest Service brings forest management assistance and expertise to a wide spectrum of partners, including state forestry agencies, local governments, nonprofit organizations, landowners, and tribes.

S&PF programs fall under staff areas that include forest health protection, fire and aviation, cooperative forestry, conservation education, and urban and community forestry. These programs help achieve the stewardship and sustainability of the nation’s rural and urban forestland resources by:

  • Providing cutting-edge technical expertise.
  • Helping to build strong state and local forestry programs.
  • Providing financial assistance through a competitive grants process.
  • Reducing federal expenditures through preventive measures.
  • Monitoring trends in sustainability on all forest lands.
  • Providing education about the complexities of ecological issues.

Each Regional Office houses a State and Private Forestry staff with its own director, with the exception of the Northeastern Area. The Northeastern Area, an administrative unit of State and Private Forestry, is headquartered in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, and serves the same states as the Region 9 Office.

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Research & Development

The Research and Development (R&D) branch of the Forest Service is the largest forestry research organization in the world. Research and Development scientists carry out basic and applied research to study biological, physical and social sciences related to forests and rangelands. 

The Research and Development branch is also an expert partner. Forest Service scientists work closely with universities in the United States, the international research community and many other research institutions. They partner with land managers and practitioners to provide scientific information that is relevant and accessible for on-the-ground action.

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International Programs

The International Programs branch promotes sustainable forest management and biodiversity conservation internationally. By linking the skills of the field-based staff of the US Forest Service with partners overseas, the agency can address the most critical forestry issues and concerns. International Programs regularly taps into the agency's wide range of expertise from staff positions as varied as wildlife biologists, forest economists, hydrologists, disaster and fire management specialists, and policy makers.

Since international cooperation is necessary to sustain the ecological and commercial viability of global forest resources and to conserve biodiversity, most of this branch's work is done in collaboration with other organizations. Partners include other government agencies, such as the United States Agency for International Development and Foreign Agricultural Service, the World Bank and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, non-government organizations, such as Ducks Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, and universities.

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