Annual Report Keeps a Finger on the Pulse of U.S. Forest Health

The 2015 FHM report, published by the Southern Research Station, is now available online and in hard copy.
The 2015 FHM report, published by the Southern Research Station, is now available online and in hard copy.

Everyone can understand the importance of a yearly checkup for monitoring one’s general health and wellbeing. Regular “checkups” are also necessary to gauge the overall health and monitoring needs of U.S. forests, so managers, scientists, and decision makers look to the U.S. Forest Service’s annual Forest Health Monitoring (FHM) national report to gain insights into issues facing forests across the landscape. The 2015 FHM report was recently published by the Southern Research Station.

Forest health monitoring: national status, trends, and analysis 2015 is the 15th in a series of these reports sponsored by the Forest Service Forest Health Monitoring program that summarize forest conditions from the prior year.

“This is a big report that includes a lot of information. The scientists who contribute to it quantify the status of, changes to, and trends in a wide variety of broadly defined indicators of forest health, including fragmentation, plant biodiversity, soils, down woody materials, and crown conditions, among others,” says Kevin Potter, a North Carolina State University (NCSU) scientist cooperating with the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center who co-edited the report with fellow NCSU scientist Barb Conkling. “The main objective is to identify ecological resources whose condition is deteriorating over large regions – which requires consistent, large-scale, and long-term monitoring.”

According to Potter, the 2015 FHM report’s most significant findings from a national perspective include:

  • Number of forest fires – In 2014, more satellite-detected forest fire occurrences were recorded for the conterminous states than for all but one year (2012) since data collection began in 2001. The spatial density of these fire occurrences was highest in northern California and southwestern Oregon, in north central Washington, in central Oklahoma, and across several southeastern states.
  • Moisture surplus and drought – Forests across much of the country experienced moisture surplus conditions in 2014, but drought existed from central California east through central Texas, with severe conditions in parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Areas with the highest moisture surpluses included the Great Lakes States, the Central Plains, and parts of the Southeast.
  • Mortality and defoliation – In 2014, 88 mortality-causing agents and complexes were recorded on 1.75 million hectares (about 4.3 million acres) in the lower 48 States. Meanwhile, 67 defoliating agents and complexes were detected on approximately 1.73 million hectares. Geographic hot spots of forest mortality were associated with bark beetle infestations in the West. Hot spots of defoliation were associated with spruce budworm in the West, and with several different insects in the East.
  • Forest fragmentation – From 2001 to 2011 there was a widespread shift nationally toward more fragmented forests. Decreases in total forest cover underestimated forest fragmentation for several criteria used to define it. Although forest tends to be the dominant land cover type where it occurs, fragmentation is pervasive and increasing over time, even in regions exhibiting relatively small changes in total forest cover area.

Compiling this report — the only annual national report that focuses specifically on forest health — is no small task and requires the participation of multiple federal, state, academic, and private partners who are experts in assessing indicators of forest health. In addition to these contributions, the annual report includes results of recently completed Evaluation Monitoring (EM) projects funded through the FHM national program, which are in-depth, “on-the-ground” assessments of specific forest health problems.

Conkling, who coordinates this section of the report, says, “We appreciate the participation of researchers involved in the EM projects and strive to support their efforts to provide useful summaries that highlight their results. The FHM national reports are a good venue to spread the word about EM research and provide interested readers with contact information to pursue details about specific research.”

The 2015 FHM report is available online and in hard copy, and the information it presents is expected to evolve. “In addition to the report itself, we are thinking in the relatively short term of presenting at least some information online, possibly in ways that allow for interactive explorations of the data, such as through GIS story maps,” says Potter.

Potter says preparation of the 2016 report is already well underway. “I’m quite excited about the content! It will, as usual, have annual analyses of forest insects and diseases, wildfire, drought, and tree mortality, as well as the EM summaries. In addition, it will contain a description of a new forest regeneration indicator, an analysis of understory vegetation, and a validation study of the National Insect and Disease Risk Map.” He expects that a draft of the 2016 report will be completed and available for public review around the end of this year, with publication following in mid-2017.

Read the full text of the report.

For more information, email Kevin Potter at

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