SRS Scientists Contribute to New National Report

Study projects significant forest loss due to suburbanization and land fragmentation

A comprehensive U.S. Forest Service report released on December 18 examines the ways expanding populations, increased urbanization, and changing land-use patterns could profoundly impact natural resources, including water supplies, nationwide during the next 50 years. 

Forest Service Southern Research Station scientists who took lead roles in conducting assessment research to the report include Michael Bowker (Outdoor Recreation) , Ken Cordell (Outdoor Recreation and Wilderness), Jeff Prestemon (International Forest Products Trade), Kurt Riitters (Landscape Patterns), and David Wear (Forests). Carter Betz, John Coulston, and Stanley Zarnock also contributed.

Significantly, the study shows the potential for significant loss of privately-owned forests to development and fragmentation, which could substantially reduce benefits from forests that the public now enjoys including clean water, wildlife habitat, forest products and others.

“We should all be concerned by the projected decline in our nation’s forests and the corresponding loss of the many critical services they provide such as clean drinking water, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, wood products and outdoor recreation,” said Agriculture Under Secretary Harris Sherman.”Today’s report offers a sobering perspective on what is at stake and the need to maintain our commitment to conserve these critical assets.”

U.S Forest Service scientists and partners at universities, non-profits and other agencies found urban and developed land areas in the U.S. will increase 41 percent by 2060.  Forested areas will be most impacted by this growth, with losses ranging from 16 to 34 mil­lion acres in the lower 48 states. The study also examines the effect of climate change on forests and the services forests provide. 

Most importantly, over the long-term, climate change could have significant effects on water availability, making the U.S. potentially more vulnerable to water shortages, especially in the Southwest and Great Plains. Population growth in more arid regions will require more drinking water. Recent trends in agricultural irrigation and land­scaping techniques also will boost water demands. 

The assessment’s projections are influenced by a set of scenarios with varying assumptions about U.S. population and economic growth, global population and economic growth, global wood energy consumption and U.S. land use change from 2010 to 2060. Using those scenarios, the report forecasts the following key trends:

  • Forest areas will decline as a result of development, particularly in the South, where population is projected to grow the most;
  • Timber prices are expected to remain relatively flat; 
  • Rangeland area is expected to continue its slow decline but rangeland productivity is stable with forage sufficient to meet expected livestock grazing demands; 
  • Biodiversity may continue to erode because projected loss of forestland will impact the variety of forest species;
  • Recreation use is expected to trend upward.  

 Additionally, the report stresses the need to develop forest and rangeland policies which are flexible enough to be effective under a wide range of future socioeconomic and ecological conditions such as climate change. The Forest and Rangelands Renewable Service Resources Planning Act of 1974 requires the Forest Service to produce an assessment of natural resource trends every 10 years.