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Broad Findings

Currently several forces of change are altering southern forests, raising questions about the sustainability of their functions and values. The first steps toward achieving their sustainability are to understand and anticipate the forces of change that shape forested ecosystems. Ultimately, sustainability requires that society manage change. Today’s actions will influence whether and to what degree future generations will continue to benefit from the unique, inherent values of southern forests.

This Assessment has taken steps toward a fuller understanding of forest conditions and potential for their change by (1) identifying the forces of change that continue to reshape forests, (2) describing current resource conditions and their possible futures, and (3) highlighting where additional information is needed to fully identify and deal with concerns and opportunities. The findings of this Assessment have led us to some broad observations about the status and possible future of southern forests.

Several forces are affecting the condition of southern forests—The South is an economically, culturally, and ecologically complex region, and multiple forces of change are simultaneously affecting forest conditions. Timber harvesting and management and land use changes into and out of forest cover influence forest area, structure, biodiversity, and water quality. Other human influences, such as atmospheric pollution, exclusion of fire from fire-dependent communities, and the introduction of exotic plants, diseases, and insects continue to reshape the composition, productivity, and ecological function of forests. Such influences are pervasive and difficult to predict and manage. All of these forces interact in their effects and will play out differently in different parts of the region. As a result, the extent, structure, and health of forests of the South are changing and will continue to change in the future.

Urbanization has a substantial impact on the extent, condition, and health of forests—Among forces of change, urbanization will have the most direct, immediate, and permanent effects on the extent, condition, and health of forests. While urban uses currently represent a small share of land in the South, they are expanding rapidly. Forecast models predict that about 12 million acres of southern forests will be urbanized between 1992 and 2020. Nineteen million acres of forest are forecast to be developed between 2020 and 2040. In addition, population growth in rural areas means that more forests are increasingly influenced by human presence. In these areas remnant forests are becoming more fragmented. An important and pervasive direct result of urbanization of southern forests will be increasing limitations on forest management options, such as prescribed burning, that are necessary to maintain productive and healthy forests.

Population is growing, and the social context is changing—From 1980 to 2000, total population increased at a higher rate in the South than in the Nation. Through the 1980s, population growth in the South was focused primarily in urban areas. Many rural areas experienced population losses. Since then, populations increased in nearly all of the South’s counties, expanding the interface between people and forests. The demographic profile of the region has changed toward a more urban population. These demographic changes are reflected in attitudes and values held about the region’s forests. Public values about forests vary among sectors of the population and include both commodity and biocentric views.

In urban areas and at their periphery, certain forest benefits are becoming increasingly scarce. Among these are opportunities for forest recreation. While the demand for recreation will increase as the population grows, recreational access to private land is expected to continue to decrease. As a result, congestion and competition between recreation user groups for access to and use of the region’s public forests will increase.

Total forest area within the South is forecast to remain stable, but subregional and compositional changes will continue—The South has rebounded from widespread deforestation of the early 1900s to become a heavily forested region. While the total area of forest has remained relatively constant over the past 30 years, 1 to 2 percent of forest land moved into or out of forest cover each year. We forecast little change in the total area of forests between 1995 and 2040, as losses of forests to urban uses are expected to be offset by conversions of agricultural land to forest. Urban development is forecast to be concentrated in the eastern part of the region and conversion of agricultural land to forest cover in the west, resulting in an overall westward shift in forest area as well changes in shares of forest types. These shifts in forest area and composition will alter the region’s forests in ways that could be significant in affected areas. For example, loss and fragmentation of forests in some areas and an increasing share of pine plantations in others could have important localized economic and ecological implications.

Timber production is forecast to expand but not deplete forest inventories below present levels—While the total area of forest land has remained relatively stable and harvests have expanded since the 1970s, the timber inventory on these forests has increased by more than 70 percent. Softwood inventories leveled off in the 1990s, but recent inventories and model forecasts indicate that they will expand as new and anticipated pine plantations grow to maturity. Hardwood inventories continued to increase through the 1990s, but at a decreasing rate. A region-wide trend of increasing removals relative to net hardwood growth is forecast to continue, resulting in the total inventory of hardwood forests peaking in 2025, then declining to about current inventory levels in 2040. While region-wide removals are forecast to exceed growth in 2025, this occurs at least 10 years earlier in four States. As with softwoods, additional investment in hardwood management could increase future growth and inventories of these forests, but this response has not yet been observed.

Investment in pine plantations is forecast to continue to expand to meet increased softwood demand, resulting in some changes to the ecological characteristics of southern forests—Historically, private landowners in the South have responded to rising softwood timber prices by investing in tree planting and more intensive management. The result has been an increase in the area of pine plantations in the South, from about 2 million acres in 1952 to 32 million acres in 1999. Forecasting models predict that pine plantation acreage will increase to 54 million acres in 2040. These new pine plantations, which will be derived from the afforestation of agricultural lands and conversion of hardwood, natural pine, and mixed pine/hardwood forests, enhance softwood timber productivity and concentrate timber harvesting on fewer acres than would otherwise be necessary to meet demand. For example, plantation forests accounted for 15 percent of timberland and 12 percent of total growing stock volume in the 1990s, but 43 percent of softwood net annual growth and 35 percent of annual softwood removals (chapter 16). Increased pine plantation acreage could also result in varying ecological changes, depending on stand origin and management. For example, young planted pine stands provide early successional habitats within which many species thrive. Subsequent management activities, however, largely determine plant diversity and habitat structure. While these dynamics have been studied at the forest stand level, they are not well understood at a broader landscape scale.

Changing land use and harvest patterns will have important impacts on people—Land use and forest management changes can influence people in a variety of ways. Historically, the southern economy has been inextricably tied to various uses of its land base. The wood products industry, for example, currently accounts for about 6 percent of regional employment and 8 percent of income. Forecasts of increasing timber harvests imply more jobs in the wood products sector, especially outside the traditional core timber production areas. Forests also contribute to the quality of life by providing recreation opportunities, visual backdrops, and a variety of environmental amenities. Because people derive value from the landscape condition in which they live, abrupt changes in its condition, such as when timber harvesting is increased in areas where it had not been common in recent years, or when urban expansion occurs, can lead to costs for some people as others benefit.

In such areas, the values of green space and large remnant forests will likely increase. Whatever the cause, the variety of effects of forest changes on local communities is likely to continue to result in controversy and an increase in local regulation of land uses and forest treatments.

Southern forests have proven resilient, but some components are scarce and therefore vulnerable to change—Through the 20th century, the South has recovered from a largely cutover, exhausted, eroded condition to become one of the most productive and biologically diverse forest regions in the world. However, the presence of numerous increasingly rare forest communities and imperiled aquatic and terrestrial animal species are reasons for concern. Such forest communities include certain wetlands types, longleaf pine ecosystems, old-growth forests, and spruce-fir forests. Added to the 132 terrestrial species of conservation concern are numerous species of amphibians, fish, and other aquatic species that are either critically imperiled or vulnerable to extinction.

All of these communities and species are likely to continue being adversely affected by multiple forces of change. Protection and restoration efforts, already underway in some areas, provide some means of addressing these changes. Ultimately, with a few exceptions, their future lies largely in the hands of private forest owners who own the vast majority of forest communities and habitat.

Scarce forest types have high ecological value—To borrow the adage from economics, scarcity defines value. The rare forest communities in the South (above) have especially high ecological value. Thus, much consideration of biodiversity is focused on a relatively small share of the forest landscape. With the exception of old-growth and spruce-fir communities, these rare communities are largely on private land.

In the urbanizing areas of the South, unfragmented forest cover is becoming increasingly scarce, especially in the Piedmont. In these areas, the value of residual forest cover is increasing, especially as sources of outdoor recreation and as habitat for certain wildlife species. For area-sensitive wildlife species, large contiguous blocks of forest become especially valuable as refuges in areas fragmented by urbanization or other forest disturbances. In these areas, public forests provide stable blocks of contiguous forest cover, thus the conservation value of this public land, which is especially scarce in the rapidly urbanizing Piedmont and Coastal Plain ecological regions, is very high and will increase in the future.

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content: David Wear and John Greis
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created: 5-OCT-2002
modified: 08-Dec-2013