No one knows how many gallons, pounds, and tons of non-timber forest products are harvested – there are too many products, too many units of measurement, and not enough data.
“If we don’t know the volume, we can’t figure out the value,” says USDA Forest Service scientist Jim Chamberlain. “Value has two pieces to it, volume and price.”
Chamberlain and his colleagues estimated the volumes and values of NTFP harvests on public lands by sifting through numerous datasets from federal agencies and industry groups. The scientists published their findings as a General Technical Report.
The report is required as part of the Montreal Process. Similar reports were published in 2003 and 2010, and Chamberlain contributed to the 2010 report. “Each time we get a little more information, a little more quantitative analysis,” says Chamberlain.
Permit records from the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management provide the best available data for public lands. However, the records don’t account for unpermitted harvests or harvests from private lands.
“This is particularly germane in the eastern U.S., where national forests cover just two percent of the land,” says Chamberlain. “It means our estimates are conservative, especially for the Southeast. There’s potentially a huge volume that’s unaccounted for.”
Southern hardwood forests are a treasure trove of biodiversity. And relative to the amount of public lands in the South, NTFPs are harvested in huge amounts.
The South leads the nation in permitted harvest of medicinal forest products. In 2013, almost 15,000 pounds of medicinal plants were harvested from southern forests. “Most of that poundage is coming from Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia,” says Chamberlain.
NTFPs also include nursery plants such as rhododendron and azalea seedlings. In 2013, almost 43 percent of the total national recorded seedling harvest came from the National Forests of North Carolina. Nursery products are something of a luxury product, but NTFPs also provide food.
“People gathered over half a million pounds of edible products from public lands in 2013 – a huge amount,” says Chamberlain. “That goes right to food security, health, and wellbeing.”
Almost 15,000 pounds of herbs and medicinal plants were harvested from southern forests in 2013. Since 2002, more than 673 thousand pounds of wild ginseng have been harvested from hardwood forests across the eastern U.S. Twenty-four percent of the total national harvest was gathered in Kentucky.
The volumes are immense, and so is the value. In 2013, people paid more than $8 million for permits to harvest NTFPs on public lands. The wholesale value of the products they gathered was approximately a billion dollars.
“We could just report volume, but from an economic standpoint, it’s important to understand how valuable NTFPs are and how important they are to our economy,” says Chamberlain.
Despite their economic significance, most NTFP species are neither inventoried nor monitored, so the impacts of harvesting cannot be assessed.
Wild blueberries are one of the few non-timber products that are tracked. Data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service reveals that in 2012, more than 90 million pounds of wild blueberries were harvested – a 98 percent increase from 2004. Blueberry harvests are probably sustainable. But for other species – especially those whose roots are harvested – sustainable harvest levels are not currently known.
“The available data focus on commercial harvests,” says Chamberlain. “But that excludes the impact and intangible values of NTFPs harvested for subsistence and personal use. Change happens when people who are in a decision-making place react to value to rural communities.”
For more information, email Jim Chamberlain at firstname.lastname@example.org.