Our Forest Resources: Southern Research Station Scientists Coordinate National Assessment

Urban trees provide essential economic, ecological and social benefits to city-dwellers. Photo by  Luana Vargas, courtesy of Bugwood.org.
Urban trees provide essential economic, ecological and social benefits to city-dwellers. Photo by Luana Vargas, courtesy of Bugwood.org.

A new U.S. Forest Service report provides updated national estimates of forest area, growth, mortality rate, and other information, including timber products output. Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) scientist Sonja Oswalt coordinated the assessment.

“Forests are invaluable –both economically and ecologically – to our Nation’s well-being,” says Oswalt, who is a forest resource analyst at the SRS Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) unit. Other SRS scientists who contributed to the report include Jim Chamberlain and Christopher Oswalt, both of FIA, and Kurt Riitters of the SRS Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center.

“Although significant changes in land use have occurred in the United States, the total area of forest land has been fairly stable for nearly 100 years,” says Oswalt. The most recent update shows that the total acreage of forested land in the U.S. is about 766 million acres, an increase of 7 million since the 2010 update. Fifty-five percent of the nation’s forests are located in the eastern U.S., and in Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas, forest cover has increased by more than 5 percent. Other findings include:

  • Three percent of the conterminous U.S. is considered urban, and approximately 250 million people live in cities. Trees cover about 35 percent of urban areas, and provide essential ecological, economic, and social benefits. The economic value of reduced air pollution and building shading (which reduces energy costs) is estimated to be $2.4 trillion.
  • Nationally, 58 percent of forested land is owned by individuals, families, Native American tribes, corporations, or other private groups. In the Southeast, 87 percent of forested land is privately owned. Privately owned forests provide more than 90 percent of the Nation’s wood and paper products, and tend to be located on higher quality sites than public lands, making them more productive.
  • The amount of timber and other wood products harvested has continued to decline, although the amount of living tree biomass (mostly in the form of tree trunks) has increased. Timber removals in the South have not fallen as significantly as in other parts of the country, and in 2011 accounted for 63 percent of the Nation’s total timber harvest. The importance of timber production in the South is reflected in the amount of pine plantations.  Across the U.S., only 9 percent of all forests are planted, but 72 percent of these planted forests are in the South.

One of the major changes in the assessment is that species that grow tall enough to be considered a tree – in any part of their range – are now counted as a tree even when they don’t grow very tall. This change does not affect the Southeast but in parts of the Southwest, oaks can live for decades and never grow tall enough to reach the traditional tree-size standard (16.4 feet). The new standards count chaparral and scrubby brushland areas as woodlands, and across the country, there are more than 52 million acres of such land.

The report is part of long-term assessment and planning activities that the Forest Service has contributed to and coordinated since the 1970s. The assessments are required by the Forest and Rangelands Renewable Service Resources Planning Act of 1974.

Read the full text of the report.

For more information, email Sonja Oswalt at soswalt@fs.fed.us

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.  


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