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Forest Production and Products

Landowners have harvested timber from southern forests for more than 300 years since European settlement, and most forests have been harvested multiple times. When examining changes prior to the mid-19th century, it is difficult to separate the impact of land clearing by settlers from other commercial harvesting in the region (Williams 1989). Although export markets were active throughout the United States (and in the South, especially for naval stores), land clearing and local consumption of cleared material likely dominated. Commercial harvesting to support settlements in less forested areas—such as the prairie areas of the Midwest and the urban centers throughout the Nation—and export markets grew rapidly beginning in the second half of the 19th century. Large-scale commercial harvesting in the South commenced in the 1880s as the timber inventories of the Lake States declined, and peaked in the 1920s (Williams 1989).

The South’s timber harvesting expanded faster than the Nation’s from the 1950s to 1990s (fig. 10), more than doubling as new technologies developed, national policies changed, and private landowners invested in timber production (chapter 9). This expansion was fueled by a technology-driven shift toward outdoor use of treated southern pine lumber along with growth in paper manufacturing during the 1970s and 1980s, and sustained through the 1990s by harvest reductions from public lands in the West (chapter 9). New production technologies also shifted demand from larger to smaller diameter trees, with the shift from plywood to oriented strand board perhaps being the best example (chapter 9). The increased comparative advantage for southern forests, combined with declining western forest timber production shifted the region’s share of national timber production from 40 percent in 1952 to nearly 60 percent in 1996 (figs. 10 and 11). U.S. timber production peaked in the late 1990s, after which a combination of factors leveled and then decreased total output through 2007—harvesting in 2007 was about 91 percent of 1996 levels. Historic declines in the construction sector since 2008 have depressed timber production levels even further. Even so, since 1986, if the South were compared with any other country, none would produce more timber than this region of the United States. The wood-related sectors of the South’s economy contributed more than 1 million jobs and more than $51 billion of employee compensation in 2009 (chapter 12).

Figure 9—Distribution of forests in the Southern United States by broad forest management types, 2010.

Expanding demand for timber in the South encouraged forest landowners to increase their investments in timber production thereby expanding timber supply (chapter 5). The area of planted pine has grown strongly over the past 50 years, from nearly none in 1952 to about 39 million acres (or 19 percent of forests) by 2010, with a near doubling of planted pine acres from 1990 to 2010 alone (fig. 12). In the Coastal Plain, 27 percent of forests are now classified as planted pine type. The area of planted pine continued to expand even after the market peaked in 1998 and harvesting began to decline. This expansion, combined with increased productivity from genetic and silvicultural improvements, means the forests of the South are positioned to produce even more timber than they did at the market peak. Although the planting of pines occurs to some extent throughout the region, the vast majority of pine plantations are located in the Coastal Plain.

Figure 10—Roundwood production in the Southern United States, all products, 1953–2008.Sources: USDA Forest Service timber product output reports as defined in Wear and others (2007).

The formation of public policies also has played a role in the development of the private timber investments in the South. Federal Government assistance to private landowners dates to the Clarke-McNary Act of 1924, which fostered State- Federal cooperation in several areas of forest protection and management (Steen 1976). Since then, a variety of Federal and State programs have supported wildland fire protection programs as well as technical advice for landowners in conjunction with cost sharing for forest establishment, regeneration, and silvicultural treatments. Cost-share programs for planting, such as the Soil Bank and Conservation Reserve Programs, have motivated substantial afforestation on nonindustrial forest ownerships (Lee and others 1992). Fire protection represents perhaps the most visible and significant form of assistance, reducing the risk of catastrophic forest losses and thereby improving the odds of realizing a profitable return on investments. This type of risk mitigation undoubtedly encouraged tree planting and active forest management, and has played an important role in the expansion of forest production since the 1940s.

Figure 11—Timber harvest in the United States by region. Source: USDA Forest Service timber product output reports as defined in Wear and others (2007).

Not all policies encourage forest ownership and investment. Federal and State taxes reduce pre-tax values of family- owned forest land in the South. Property taxes can produce relative disadvantages to holding forest land and contribute to conversion of some forest land in States with higher property tax rates. Likewise, estate taxes can encourage forest land sales and timber harvesting to cover the cost of such taxes under some circumstances (chapter 11).

From the 1960s to the 1990s, the period when timber harvesting more than doubled, the biomass in southern forests also grew steadily, reflecting high growth rates (fig. 13). From the 1950s to 2010, growth exceeded total removals, increasing the hardwood biomass inventory by 80 percent and the softwood biomass inventory by 60 percent (chapter 5). While growth still exceeds removals, the reservoir of southern biomass and the stores of carbon it represents have begun to level off.

Figure 12—Historical trends in forest area by broad management type, 1952–2010.

Figure 13—Trends in standing biomass measured as volume of growing stock inventory. Source: Forest Inventory and Analysis surveys as summarized by Smith and others (2001, 2004, 2009).

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Key Findings

Forestry Sciences Laboratory

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