In 2008, we started the Southern Forest Futures Project with 15 public workshops held in each of the 13 States of our region. In Baton Rouge, Asheville, Stillwater, Charleston, and all the other locations, we discussed and compiled the concerns of more than 700 resource professionals and other interested citizens regarding the great and vast forests of the South. Their concerns reflected the times:
- the Great Recession was just unfolding;
- the greatest transition in forest ownership since the nineteenth century was near completion;
- the Farm Bill and other policies were focusing on using wood for bioenergy;
- the recent housing boom had supported high timber prices but consumed forested land in numerous parts of the region; and
- the 2007 fire season—especially in Georgia and Florida—coupled with several drought years, highlighted the importance of climate change.
In the end, the issues and questions we heard in these workshops across the South defined the scope of the Futures Project.
The many chapters of the Futures Project’s Technical Report contain the work of more than 40 experts who illuminate these issues and help us understand their scope, the challenges they present for forest managers and policy makers, and the limits of our current knowledge of each. Our fundamental approach was not only to analyze past and current trends by synthesizing the scientific literature but also to forecast how southern forests as a whole might be altered by future demographic, economic, and biological factors and trends.
In addition to the full Technical Report containing the above analyses, another group of experts continues to sort out what these findings imply for forests and forest management in five distinct subregions of the South. The Futures Project, when combined with the earlier Southern Forest Resource Assessment, provides an important benchmark of our knowledge of forests as they exist today, and our best attempt to look into the future — a look we hope proves useful for those involved in forest management, planning, and policy deliberations.
In 2013, it is clear that all of the issues that were identified at the start of the Futures Project remain relevant. Urbanization, climate change, emerging bioenergy markets, invasive plants, insects, and pathogens, global timber demand, and all of the other drivers of forest change continue to have consequences for plant and animal diversity, forest cover, water quality and availability, timber markets and incomes, and recreation values.
Taken together and in the broader context of history, the present era portends the greatest potential changes for the forested landscapes of the South since the great deforestation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But unlike that era, there is now a broad spectrum of knowledgeable and interested citizens and institutions inside and outside of government that will focus on these lands and work toward desired futures. Our hope is that the Southern Forest Futures Project makes a significant and positive contribution to those efforts.