Most foresters think in long time scales. We are taught to manage for what we want the forest to look like years, decades, even centuries, down the road. This perspective is often in contrast with the average member of the public, who is primarily focused on what the forest looks like today and if it will look different tomorrow.
The long-range perspective of those who manage our region’s forests is what keeps them growing strong on the landscape. U.S. Forest Service data from the Forest Inventory and Analysis program (aka, the nation’s tree census) shows that the amount of forestland in the southern U.S. has increased steadily over the past 50 years, despite timber being harvested to support the world’s wood products demand and additional tree losses to natural causes, such as wildfire, hurricanes and insect outbreaks. When you think in longer time scales, you know that trees grow back on southern soil.
Despite these clear trends in the data, there seems to still be an undercurrent in society and the media claiming widespread "deforestation" and "forest loss" in the South, misusing these terms when they are talking about the loss of individual trees. When a stand of trees is lost but new ones planted or naturally regenerated, would you say you have lost the forest? You may have temporarily lost some of the ecosystem services and benefits provided by standing mature trees and desired by the average citizen (shade, aesthetics, certain wildlife habitats, etc.), but the forest is still there and regrowing. Regardless of the age of the trees, the forest continues to provide ecosystem benefits for our air, water, wildlife and more.
When talking about deforestation, what we really should be focusing on is what happens after those trees are lost. If new trees are not grown to replace them, then we’ve got a deforestation problem. From current projections, we’ve got a big deforestation problem coming down the pike in the South, but it’s not from timber harvesting, fire or bugs as many might expect. The Southern Forest Futures Project estimates a loss of as much as 23 million acres of forestland in the South by the year 2060 to commercial and residential development. This is not just loss of trees - this is loss of the forest.
The New York Times ran a story last month summarizing a journal article that contended that significant "forest loss" is occurring the United States, primarily focused on federal land in the rural west. From a forester’s point of view, it inaccurately confuses forest loss with tree loss from wildfire and insect outbreaks and points the public and policymakers concerned about sustaining our nation’s forest base in the wrong direction. While there are clearly forest health and wildfire challenges on federal land in the west, those lands are not being converted to something else. They will, by and large, regrow.
A different fate is in store for tens of millions of acres of forest here in our backyard that could become condos, parking lots and shopping malls if we don’t do something about it. That is why the Southern Group of State Foresters and the U.S. Forest Service have teamed up with over 30 other organizations to form a new partnership around the common vision of a world where southern forests are retained on the landscape and seen as critical infrastructure that support the health, prosperity, security and well-being of the American people. Stay tuned for more on this effort to keep forests as forests next month!