The Mid-South Forests of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas

What changes will the next 50 years bring?

Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Photo by Jim Guldin.
Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Photo by Jim Guldin.

Like most regions of the U.S., the future of the Mid-South forests of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas is one of challenge. A report by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station outlines those challenges and presents options for managing forests over the next half century.

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 South over the next 50 years.

Because of the great variations in forest ecosystems across the South, the Futures Project produced separate findings and implications by subregion, including a separate report for the Mid-South, the westernmost of the five subregions located within Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The report breaks the Mid-South into four sections: the Ozark-Ouachita Highlands, the Cross Timbers, the High Plains, and the West Texas Basin and Range.

“The four sections of the Mid-South region offer vistas of unparalleled ecological variety, species diversity, and scenic beauty,” says Jim Guldin, lead author of the report and project leader of the SRS Restoring Longleaf Pine Ecosystems and Southern Pine Ecology and Management research units.

“It’s a huge area where the landscape varies from the mountains of northern Arkansas to windswept high plains prairies to West Texas deserts. The Mid-South supports more — and more varied — ecosystems than anywhere else in the South.”

Davis Mountains in West Texas. Photo by Ron Billings, Texas Forest Service.
Davis Mountains in West Texas. Photo by Ron Billings, Texas Forest Service.

Over the next 50 years, the Mid-South will face challenges that include population increases, the likelihood of increased drought coupled with increased demand for water and water supply stress, sea level rise along the Gulf of Mexico, increased threat of wildfire, and plant and insect invasions. Key findings from the report include:

  • The rapidly increasing population of the Mid-South places increasing stress on natural resources; predicted increases in demand for water, warmer temperatures, and decreases in precipitation are likely to increase water supply stress over the next 50 years.
  • Warming temperatures, increasing drought, and rising human populations will increase the threat of wildfires, which are expected to occur more frequently and are likely to cover larger areas.
  • Management recommendations for Mid-South forests and woodlands may need to be modified and refined to address increased drought and threats from insects, diseases, and native plant invasions.
  • Forests and woodlands would benefit from more prescribed burning, but predicted climate change effects will reduce the number of days suitable for prescribed burning; in addition, concerns about smoke from prescribed burning will rise with increased population in wildland-urban interfaces.
  • The combination of warmer temperatures and less water on the landscape will affect the geographic distribution and population numbers of plant and animal species. Those with limited geographic ranges, low genetic diversity, and special habitat requirements may be at higher risk for decline and even extirpation at local levels.
  • In the Mid-South, native plant species such as mesquite, juniper, and eastern red cedar present more of a challenge than nonnative invasive plants.
  • Unlike nonnative plants, nonnative invasive insects and diseases currently threaten Mid-South species such as ash, soapberry, red bay, and sassafras; it is likely that other nonnative pests not yet known will become important by the end of the present century.

Understanding the challenges presented in the report and the implications they could have for management and policy in the region is critical for maintaining the diversity, health, productivity, and sustainability of the forests, woodlands, and grasslands of the Mid-South.

For more key findings and analyses, access the full text of the report.

For more information, email Jim Guldin at jguldin@fs.fed.us

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