More than Timber

A new national assessment of edible and medicinal forest plants

Edible and medicinal plants, or non-timber forest products, often have long traditions of cultural use in the Southern Appalachians. Photo courtesy of the National Forests in North Carolina.
Edible and medicinal plants, or non-timber forest products, often have long traditions of cultural use in the Southern Appalachians. Photo courtesy of the National Forests in North Carolina.

Long before the technology to harvest timber existed, forest plants and fungi provided food, medicine, and other items. Today, edible and medicinal forest products, as well as decorative florals and specialty woods, are collectively known as non-timber forest products (NTFPs).

A new national assessment and synthesis, coordinated by U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) scientist Jim Chamberlain, will identify strategies for conserving and managing NTFPs. The assessment is drawing from the expertise of many scientists and multiple disciplines, including anthropology, ecology, economics, and horticulture. At the initial workshop in Raleigh, North Carolina (September 9 – 11, 2014), over 30 researchers and other experts explored major issues affecting NTFPs. “Our goal was to coalesce the wealth of perspectives on diverse issues, and set the stage for a comprehensive quantitative assessment,” said Chamberlain.

Forest plants and fungi are tremendously valuable to those who collect and use them – whether as food, for cultural and spiritual practices, or to earn extra income. In some communities, the cultural value surpasses the economic value, although NTFPs are economically valuable and contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. The assessment will address six major issues:

  • Social Dimensions, led by Kelly Watson of Eastern Kentucky University, will include subsistence, personal, and recreational uses of NTFPS, as well as community-based monitoring, civil rights, and the importance of including harvesters in management decisions. Ensuring that the many people and groups who benefit from these species have safe and secure access to them is of utmost importance. 
  • Ecological Aspects will focus on the ecological impacts of NTFP harvesting. Although some species may be sustainably harvested, others are at risk of losing genetic diversity due to over-harvesting. For many species – especially those like black cohosh, ramps, and American ginseng, whose roots are harvested – sustainable harvest limits are very difficult to identify. Tamara Ticktin from the University of Hawai’i will lead the ecology team.
  • The team examining the Cultural Aspects of NTFP harvesting will be led by Frank Lake, a research ecologist at the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station. Lake and his team will focus on the cultural importance of NTFPs to Native Americans and indigenous peoples, local norms and practices, and issues of access and rights.
  • The Economics and Markets for NTFPs are complex, as many people and groups are involved. including harvesters, processors, retailers, and consumers. Additionally, NTFPs have non-market values, derived from cultural significance, the recreational value of harvesting, and other values. Greg Frey, formerly with Virginia State University and now with SRS, will lead the economics team.
  • The team focused on the Production of NTFPs will be led by Chamberlain, a research forest products technologist with the SRS Forest Inventory and Analysis unit. “Our goal is to summarize the types of NTFPs by industry segment, discuss natural forest management, and highlight production practices such as forest farming,” said Chamberlain. Forest farming, or integrating NTFPs into forest management, would allow landowners to earn money while their timber matures. Cultivation is becoming economically viable for some species, but most NTFPs are still harvested from the wild. 
  • The assessment of Policy and Regulations will examine the laws and permitting processes that guide harvesting on public lands, and discuss their impact on harvesters. Historically the Forest Service has used the regulations that guide timber sales to also sell NTFPs. However, given the growing demand for NTFPs and the distinct issues surrounding them, NTFPs will soon be regulated separately from timber. Patricia DeAngelis with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Sharon Nygaard-Scott with the Forest Service Forest Management Staff are coordinating this analysis.

Before management approaches on public lands can encompass the multiple aspects, uses, and values of NTFPs, the economic value and ecological impact of NTFPs needs to be expressed. “We need to move from exploitation of these resources to management,” said Chamberlain.

Jim Chamberlain moderated the sub-plenary on Forest Foods at the IUFRO Working Congress on October 6.

For more information, email Jim Chamberlain at

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