Forest Loss on the Rebound: Sustaining Investments for America's Natural Resource Future

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The Great Recession of 2007–09, with its attendant downturn in the housing industry, might have slowed the rate of forest land loss to development. But lower land prices and interest rates have given developers opportunities to acquire land at historically low prices; as the economy recovers, a surge of open space conversion to development can be expected. Forest Service studies have projected a net forest loss from 1997 to 2050 of 23 million acres, an area the size of Maine—and increased housing density from 2000 to 2030 on 57 million acres of forest land, an area larger than Utah. Almost every part of the country has forested watersheds at serious risk from development. 

New development often leaves forests fragmented and degradedIn the conservation community, we share a central premise: that forests provide invaluable benefits to the American people, including biodiversity, pollination, carbon sequestration, clean air and water, forest products, erosion control, soil renewal, and more. Our job at the Forest Service is to help sustain the ability of America’s forests and grasslands, both public and private, to deliver a full range of ecosystem services for generations to come. 

That ability is increasingly at risk. Drought, invasive species, uncharacteristically severe wildfires, uncharacteristically severe outbreaks of insects and disease—all these stresses and disturbances are affecting America’s forests on an unprecedented scale. Partly, they are driven by the global challenge of climate change. 

On the national forests and grasslands, the Forest Service is responding by restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy, resilient ecosystems. Our goal is to sustain and restore ecosystems that can deliver all the benefits that Americans want and need, even if they are not exactly the same systems as before. Climate change highlights the need for broad-scale approaches—for restoration on a landscape scale, at the level of watersheds, ecoregions, or broad geographic areas. 

Our stewardship obligations therefore go beyond the National Forest System. The United States is exceptional in that most of our forest land—56 percent—is privately owned. Most forested landscapes are mosaics of landownerships, with some lands publicly owned and others in a variety of private landownerships. The Forest Service is accordingly taking an all-lands approach. We are working with partners across boundaries and ownerships to address the ecosystem issues that affect us all.

One such issue is loss of open space. More than a century ago, conservation was inspired by the largescale loss of America’s forests following the Civil War. Through the tireless efforts of early conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt, America stabilized its forest estate at roughly 750 million acres.

But America’s population has grown from 76 million in 1900 to more than 300 million today. As cities have spread into the surrounding countryside, America’s population has changed from 60 percent rural in 1900 to 80 percent urban today. In the process, forests, farms, and fields have given way to urban, suburban, and exurban development. By 2006, the United States was losing about 6,000 acres of open space per day. 

As forests are fragmented by land use conversion, the list of proposed land conservation projects is growing. Recognizing the need, the President’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative called for strengthening the Land and Water Conservation Fund. However, appropriations for land acquisitions are increasingly difficult to obtain. 

An alternative approach is the Forest Legacy Program. Under the program, the Forest Service works with state partners to acquire easements from willing private landowners on forested lands of special importance for conservation. As of February 2012, more than 2.2 million acres had been protected in 53 states and territories. However, appropriations for the program have declined in recent years. 

Part of what drives land use conversion is loss of private income from forest lands. The Forest Service is working to increase potential income for private landowners from a variety of sources. Our researchers are developing new ways of utilizing low-value wood, such as cross-laminated timber for construction and biomass for energy production.We are also working with partners to develop markets for forest-related ecosystem services such as wetlands, carbon storage, water purification, and habitat for listed species. 

Great Grey Owl on the Umatilla National ForestWith Forest Service support, partnerships have formed to preserve open space all across America, from the Chesapeake Bay watershed, to the Greater Yellowstone Region, to a 100-mile scenic corridor in Washington state. By working together on a landscape scale, agencies and organizations of all kinds can leverage their mutual resources. A good example is the Quabbin-to-Cardigan Partnership in the Monadnock Highlands of New England. This is one of the last remaining large blocks of forest habitat in the region, protecting municipal watersheds for about 200 cities and towns, including the city of Boston. The partnership is a collaborative, landscape-scale effort that brings public and private organizations together to keep forests intact.

With 80 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas, the Forest Service is also expanding its work in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. America has 100 million acres of urban forests; through its Urban and Community Forestry program, the Forest Service has provided assistance to 8,550 communities, home to more than half of all Americans. The goal is a continuous network of healthy forested landscapes, from remote wilderness areas to shady urban neighborhoods, parks, and greenways. 

Open space conservation takes investments. At a time of government budget cuts across the board, conservationists will need to find imaginative new ways of investing in forestry and conservation—of leveraging partnership resources and building public support. Investments in forestry and open space conservation amount to investments in the future of America—for the benefit of generations to come.

Tom Tidwell is Chief of the USDA Forest Service.