Projected Land Use Change in the South

Findings from the Southern Forest Futures Project

Continued urbanization could significantly reduce forest land in the South. Photo by Larry Korhnak, courtesy of Interface South.
Continued urbanization could significantly reduce forest land in the South. Photo by Larry Korhnak, courtesy of Interface South.

The Southern Forest Futures Project (SFFP) started in 2008 as an effort to study and understand the various forces reshaping the forests across the 13 states of the Southeast. Chartered by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Region and Southern Research Station along with the Southern Group of State Foresters, the project examines a variety of possible futures and how they might shape forests and their many ecosystems and values.

Land use patterns define both the extent of human presence on a landscape and the ability of land to provide a full range of ecosystem services. The future sustainability of forests in the South has been and will continue to be largely influenced by the dynamics of land use. As the region’s population grows so too will the area of developed uses. The pattern of these developments, returns from the various products of rural land, and the land’s inherent productivity will determine the distribution of forest, crop, and other rural land uses.

Chapter 4 of the SFFP technical report examines how land use could respond to the economic and population forecasts associated with the alternative futures projected as for the Southern Forest Futures Project.

Key Findings:

  • Based on a continuation of historical development, the authors forecast that between 30 and 43 million acres of land in the South will be developed for urban uses by 2060 from a base of 30 million acres in 1997.
  • From 1997 to 2060, the South is forecasted to lose between 11 million acres (7 percent) and 23 million acres (13 percent) of forests, nearly all to urban uses. All of the South’s five subregions are expected to lose at least some forest acreage under all evaluated futures.
  • Strong timber markets can ameliorate losses of southern forest somewhat, but this comes at the expense of cropland uses.
  • Among the South’s five subregions, the Piedmont is forecasted to lose the greatest proportion of its forest area—21 percent under the highest-loss forecast—by 2060. The Mid-South and Mississippi Alluvial Valley are forecasted to lose the smallest proportion (between 8 and 9 percent).
  • At 34 percent, Peninsular Florida is forecasted to lose the most forest land of the 21 sections nested within the South’s five subregions. All sections within the Piedmont subregion are forecasted to lose at least 19 percent of their forest land.
  • The area of cropland in the South is forecasted to decline by as much as 17 million acres from 1997 to 2060 from a base of about 84 million acres in 1997. Cropland futures assume constant real returns to agricultural products.
  • Cropland losses would be highest in North Carolina, southern Florida, and central Texas.

Read the full text of the chapter.

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