Forestry: An Overview


Forestry has been an important part of American industry since the late 1600s and remains so to this day. As the importance of the timber industry was realized early in American history, so too was the need for laws to regulate it. For example, in 1708 New Hampshire passed an ordinance forbidding the harvesting of trees on ungranted lands. Since that time, statutes affecting the forestry industry have expanded and evolved with the industry itself. From laws regulating timber theft to complex environmental regulations, those engaged in forestry must follow numerous state and federal laws both similar and distinct from those involved in other agricultural operations. Within the last thirty years there has been a dramatic increase in both the number and the complexity of the laws affecting forestry.

Forest lands throughout the United States and the world remain as important as they ever were. The world has almost 10 billion acres of land classified as forest land, and in the United States about 750 million acres of land, almost one third of the total land area, is so classified. Of those 750 million acres, about 40% is owned or regulated by either the federal or state government. Commercial timber harvest is prohibited or severely limited on one quarter of that land, leaving 225 million acres of government-owned land on which timber harvest may be or is permitted. The other 60% of forest land in the United States is owned by either private landowners or timber companies.

The laws protecting and regulating the commercial harvesting of timber both in the United States and throughout the world have a dramatic effect on numerous issues ranging from climate change to the protection of endangered species. While the harvesting of timber is one aspect of forestry, landowner liability and carbon sequestration are two examples of important issues that private forest owners face in today’s rapidly evolving industry.

Environmental Issues

Beginning with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the federal government began setting aside large tracts of land for the purpose of conservation. In 1891, the Forest Reserve Act was passed that allowed the president of the United States to set aside forest reserves within the public domain. This act eventually evolved into the national forest system of today. As discussed above, commercial timber harvest is permitted on parts of this land and prohibited on others.

Individuals or companies engaged in forestry, like those in many other agricultural endeavors confront many legal issues because of recent changes in environmental regulation. Over the past half century, the body of environmental law on both the state and federal levels have developed substantially. The first major federal environmental statute was the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (later known as the Clean Water Act) which was passed initially in 1948 and strengthened by subsequent amendments, the most notable of which was in 1972. Further statutes like the Endangered Species Act have made a significant impact on forestry operations throughout the United States as timber practices have been forced to adapt to the needs of endangered plants and animals. More recently the issue of climate change has thrust forestry into the forefront of the debate as the potential for selling carbon sequestration credits develops across the country.

For more information, see the Environmental LawClean Water Act, and Climate Change Reading Rooms.

International Issues

Like other areas of agricultural law, forestry is greatly affected by the laws governing the United States as well as treaties, trade agreements, and international organizations worldwide. As the world becomes more integrated, issues surrounding forestry change as well. Early international issues typically centered around trying to prevent the spread of insects and disease affecting forests to other parts of the world through inspections and quarantines. More recently, issues arose concerning deforestation, ecological protection, climate change, preserving endangered species, and critical habitats. Today, deforestation is one of the most critical issues in international forestry. One example of the far-reaching consequences of international deforestation is the damage that it does to the scores of grain-based biofuels. Increases in global trade have brought these issues to the forefront as steps are taken around the world to limit their impact on forests and the species residing in them.

For more information, see the International Agricultural Trade and International Agricultural Law and Organizations Reading Rooms.

Recreational Use

Aside from traditional timber harvesting, forest landowners have other economic avenues available to them. The most popular of these consists of either leasing out or charging fees for using the forestland for recreational purposes. The legal risks of recreational uses of forested property vary throughout the country depending upon the location, state laws, and the creativity of the landowner. Some of the more popular options are agritourism operations, hunting leases, nature walks, and ATV trails. Operating such businesses or engaging in such leasing arrangements exposes the owner to potential risks, most often in the form of negligence lawsuits. States vary greatly in their treatment of the negligence claims against such landowners, but for more information see the compilations of state laws on recreational use and agritourism statutes.

For more information, see the AgritourismLandowner Liability, and Urban Encroachment Reading Rooms.


Taxation is another area of forestry law that has changed dramatically in the past half century. Traditionally, taxes assessed to forest lands were almost solely determined by the value of the standing timber. Often, the primary issue was whether harvested timber (and other wood products such as the stumps) should be taxed as the sale of a capital asset or as ordinary income. While this distinction between timber classification for tax purposes remains critical to this day, other issues have arisen such as the possibility of receiving tax credits or other forms of government assistance for implementing environmental protections.


The laws protecting and regulating forestry both in the United States and internationally have had a dramatic effect on numerous legal issues ranging from climate change to the protection of endangered species. While the harvesting of timber remains an important forestry consideration, other important legal issues to consider include recreation, environmental protection, landowner liability, constantly evolving regulations, and tax implications. The ability of the United States and the international community to protect and better utilize such forest resources will undoubtedly improve as more attention is given to the issue. Statutes and regulations are required to assist in the protection and more efficient utilization of natural resources and to shape and enforce the policies that are in effect now and that will evolve in the future.