Foraging in the Future

A Changing Landscape for Non-Timber Forest Products

Non-timber forest products include common edibles such as wild blackberries. Photo by Anthony Inswasty, Wikimedia Commons.

Foraging can be as casual as searching for wild blackberries in a suburban backyard. At least a quarter of the U.S. population has foraged in this way.

“Forests provide food, medicine, and other sundry items for subsistence and income,” says USDA Forest Service scientist Jim Chamberlain.

Blackberries, blueberries, Christmas trees, firewood, fungi, grasses, greenery, mosses, roots, seeds, seedlings, and edible wild plants – all are considered non-timber forest products (NTFPs).

Inventory and ecological data for the plant and mushroom species that provide these resources is lacking. The lack of data, along with the stunning diversity of the plant world, makes it challenging to assess overall NTFP health.

A definitive new General Technical Report synthesizes what is known about NTFPs across the U.S.

A team of 60 scientists and experts wrote the report. They are from Federal and state agencies, tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, corporations, research institutions, and universities across the U.S.

SRS contributors include Michelle Baumflek, Meghan Downes, Gregory Frey, Humfredo Marcano-Vega, Matthew Winn, and Evan Mercer (retired). Marla Emery, Toral Patel-Weynand, and Chamberlain were the facilitators and editors of this effort.

Listen to a brief audio clip by author Jim Chamberlain describing this publication. • Text Transcript

Over the course of eight chapters and more than 200 pages, the report addresses ecological, social, and cultural issues. It discusses economic and regulatory issues as well as climate variability. The report also examines silvicultural approaches to produce NTFPs in natural forests and through forest farming.

Stressors such as drought, fire, insects, disease, and climate variability can have huge impacts. The report suggests that over the next 80 years, the environment in which NTFPs grow will change significantly, having tremendous impacts on resources, products, and peoples’ livelihoods.

“Such changes would permanently affect forest health and ecology – as well as the social and cultural fabric of the people who benefit from them,” says Chamberlain.

Galax, an important NTFP
Galax leaves harvested from the southern Appalachians are shipped worldwide for use in the floral industry. USFS photo.

Some of the changes can be lessened with forest management practices. Silvicultural prescriptions that include NTFPs could help conserve the edible, medicinal, and culturally significant plants that many cherish.

“People depend on non-timber forest products,” says Chamberlain. “NTFPs support their livelihoods.”

Although the economic benefits of NTFPs have not been fully quantified, they have immense value. Every year, an estimated $1 billion of raw materials from NTFPs are collected from public lands managed by the FS and the Bureau of Land Management. And every year, more than $27 million is paid to harvesters of American ginseng.

“American ginseng is the iconic medicinal forest product,” says Chamberlain. Since the 1800s, huge quantities of its slow-growing roots have been harvested. Today, export of the roots are regulated by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Other understory species, such as ramps, bloodroot, and goldenseal, are vulnerable to changing patterns of temperature and soil moisture. If climate change causes their habitats to shift northward, species in some upland areas would have nowhere to go – they’re already at the southern extent of their range.

The report offers regional insights for the entire U.S. In the low coastal areas of South Carolina, for example, African American artisans of the Gullah tradition weave intricate baskets with sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris, M.filipes, or M. sericea).

sweetgrass basket
Gullah artisans are renowned for the sweetgrass baskets they weave. Sweetgrass is vulnerable to sea level rise and saltwater incursion. Photo by Don McCullough, CC 2.0.

Sweetgrass is harvested from wetlands, making it vulnerable to sea level rise and saltwater incursion. Urbanization has already affected its abundance.

Other NTFPs that grow in coastal forests – such as saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), an important medicinal forest product, are similarly vulnerable.

Of course, the world changes constantly, and always has. “The cultures of indigenous people are the product of generations of adaptation to social and ecological changes,” says Chamberlain. “Traditional ecological knowledge systems offer much wisdom as all of humanity seeks to adapt to a changing climate.”

Read the full text of the GTR.

For more information, email Jim Chamberlain at

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