Tracking Those Other Forest Products

Volunteer citizen scientist harvesting black cohosh for research study. Photo by Jim Chamberlain.
Volunteer citizen scientist harvesting black cohosh for research study. Photo by Jim Chamberlain.

Timber is certainly the best-known forest product, but since before the time of European settlement, people have harvested other plants from the forests for a wide range of purposes.

The U.S. Forest Service National Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program has assessed timber product output (TPO) for more than 60 years by surveying the primary producers of industrial roundwood in each state on a three to five-year cycle. TPO assessments track which tree species are cut, where logs originate, and the types of products that result. In the South, the Forest Service Southern Research Station FIA program tracks TPO for the 13 southern states.

Recognizing the importance of non-timber forest products–medicinal herbs and other edible and ornamental products, for example–FIA decided to develop a non-timber product output (NTPO) assessment system to provide information on this segment of the forest products industry. Forest Service Southern Research Station research forest products technologist Jim Chamberlain began working with researchers from the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment to develop the protocols needed to systematically monitor non-timber forest products. They started by focusing on medicinal forest products in Central Appalachia, working in Virginia, with American ginseng as a first case. The collaborators recently published an article on the relationship between hardwood timber harvest and the collection of American ginseng.

The study provides a starting point for developing a system which can periodically report growth and harvest data on all medicinal non-timber forest products. Findings from data analysis will be integrated into a geographic information system to provide spatial representations of various aspects of the medicinal forest products segment.

The system is already providing valuable insights into harvests of medicinal forest products in Virginia. “One of our first challenges was to identify the local buyers of these products,” says Chamberlain. “We focused first on buyers of American ginseng root, with the idea that they would also buy other medicinal forest products.”

Results from the collaborative bore this out. Surveys showed that ginseng buyers also bought more than 26,000 pounds of slippery elm bark, black cohosh root, wild yam root, goldenseal, bloodroot, trillium, false unicorn, pink lady slipper, true unicorn root, blue cohosh, and Virginia snakeroot.

“Through this effort, we’re now able to identify the FIA inventory units from which these products originate,” says Chamberlain. “In the future, we’ll expand the work to quantify volumes of other medicinal forest products harvested in similar habitat. The long-term goal is to create a system we can use to regularly track and more thoroughly value non-timber forest product outputs across the nation.”–Adapted from FIA National Program newsletter.

Read the recent CompassLive article about the American ginseng research.

For more information, email Jim Chamberlain at

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Receive weekly updates