Guide to the Forest Service Playbook

By: Kevin Garden

Some Forest Service permittees are unaware of the Forest Service’s very extensive set of internal directives that provide direction to agency employees who administer recreational permits. The directives, known as the Forest Service Manual and Forest Service Handbook, are publicly available online and set out guidance for Forest Service employees with regard to issuing prospectuses, administering permits, auditing permits and virtually every other issue that can arise regarding permits.  The directives are in essence the Forest Service’s playbook.  They are the first place an agency employee is likely to (or at least should) look when he or she is trying to figure out how to deal with a certain situation involving a permit.  For that reason, it can be very beneficial for a permit holder to be aware of the contents of these directives, whether it be for the purpose of anticipating how the agency may deal with a matter or ensuring the agency is following its own policy.  However, perhaps not surprisingly, the directives are not indexed well so it can be difficult to find guidance regarding the issue in which you are interested.  This article will help you navigate through the directives so you can use them to your advantage.

Forest Services badges

Where can I find the FS Manual and the FS Handbook?

As set out on the agency’s website:

The Forest Service Directive System consists of the Forest Service Manual and Handbooks, which codify the agency's policy, practice, and procedure. The system serves as the primary basis for the internal management and control of all programs and the primary source of administrative direction to Forest Service employees.

The Forest Service Manual sets out more general guiance that the agency believes is needed by Forest Service line officers, such as Regional Foresters, Forest Supervisors and District Rangers, to carry out their assigned programs and activities.  The Forest Service Handbooks, on the other hand, include more specialized guidance that is focused on agency specialists and technicians.  Often the guidance in the handbooks is simply more detailed instruction for dealing with particular situations.  Notably, the language in the directives is usually not binding law, like the language in a statute or regulation.  For that reason, the agency often cannot be forced by a court to follow the guidance (even though the guidance can impact a court’s analysis).  Nonetheless, agency employees are required by the agency to adhere to any mandatory direction in the directives, such as guidance that includes the terms “must” or “shall.”    

Unfortunately, when you go to the Forest Service’s website, there is no overall index that shows you the contents of the directives.  The only way to find out what is in each section is to basically hunt and peck your way through the directives by opening each section, one at a time.  Most (but not all) of the guidance regarding recreational special use permits is included in Titles 2300 and 2700 of the Forest Service Manual and Forest Service Handbook.  Other relevant guidance is scattered throughout other sections- for example, there is an Auditing Concessions Handbook in Title 1000 of the Forest Service Handbook.  Each chapter is then broken down into chapters, Chapter 2710, 2720, etc.  When you select a specific chapter, that chapter will be downloaded to your computer in Word format and a very detailed table of contents for that particular chapter will be set out at the beginning of the chapter. 


What sections are most relevant to outfitters?

If you are searching for guidance as to a specific issue, the best place to start is with Chapters 2710 and 2720 of Forest Service Manual Title 2700.  These two chapters are the most basic sections pertaining to recreational special use permits.  Chapter 2710 deals with Special Use Authorizations, providing guidance on issues such as which permit form to use, how and when to use prospectuses, and how to assess fees.  It also addresses issues such as changes in ownership, audits and revocations.  Chapter 2720 addresses Special Use Administration and sets out guidance for specific operations, such as outfitting and guiding, marinas and resorts.  For more specific information, you will want to look at Title 2700 of the Forest Service Handbook, which includes the Special Uses Handbook at Chapter 2709.11 and the Recreation Special Uses Handbook at Chapter 2709.15.      


There is a cheat sheet for America Outdoors members

Because of the difficulty in finding specific sections of the directives, we have put together a comprehensive index of the entire contents of all the Forest Service Manual and Handbooks.  You can find the index prepared by the Garden Law Firm in the documents section of the America Outdoors Website (check it out here.) The index is convenient to use because you can quickly view all the specific sections of both the Forest Service Manual and Handbooks, find the specific section in which you are interested, click on it and be taken directly to the Forest Service website where that section is set out.

As explained above, Forest Service employees are required by the agency to follow the guidance in the agency’s directives.  For that reason, it obviously could be very beneficial if you located guidance in those directives that was of help to you in a particular situation and passed in on to your permit administrator.  It may take a little digging, but it could well be worth it.

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The Garden Law Firm is a highly focused boutique firm providing experienced legal assistance.

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