Southern forests are a truly remarkable resource. Yes, as Georgia's state forester, I may be more appreciative of this treasure than the average citizen. My perspective never fails to inspire awe at the beauty, the services, the intricate natural environments and the livelihoods our 245 million acres of Southern forestlands afford. Being entrusted with the Georgia Forestry Commission's mission to provide leadership, service and education in the protection and conservation of Georgia's forest resources keeps me keenly aware that to see the forest, we must focus on the trees.
Since the 1930's, natural resource managers have relied on the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program to continuously analyze and track changes in forestland. The program provides the means for professional foresters to inspect and record conditions on thousands of long established plots of land, producing critical data that helps us understand changes to wildlife habitat, timber supplies, the environment and natural resources. It gauges the rate of land use changes, shifting native plant species composition, the condition of timber and the spread of non-native insects, plants, and diseases. The FIA data is analyzed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Southern Research Station, which provides critical reports for all who look to balance our resources through growth and conservation.
Before 2014, federal funding allowed this data to be produced on a 7-year cycle, and most southern states contributed additional resources to reduce this to a 5-year cycle — a reasonable amount of time to detect changes in the landscape that can signal a wide variety of results, both good and bad. Reduced federal funding to a 10-year FIA cycle in fiscal year 2014, however, has made a noticeable difference in the system. State agencies have had to squeeze more dollars out of their own shrinking budgets to try and deliver the needed 5-year cycle. Most without success. Shrinking budgets means that fewer FIA forester positions can be maintained, and the fallout is real. Forest trends don't become evident as quickly, resources at risk to specific pests and diseases can't be expeditiously quantified, and determining potential habitat for proposed or listed endangered or threatened species is hampered. A longer FIA cycle produces older data that is not as useful, the true impact of natural disasters and disturbances can't be fully known, and the current status and sustainability of resources aren't accurately or timely represented.
Today, southern foresters are scrambling to keep this flow of valuable data available. Congress appropriated $77 million to the USFS for FY16, but reduced other USFS research budgets. Consequently, FIA has been left to cover more of the administration and related costs to make up for reductions in other areas' budgets. The southern states have been funded at about 84 percent of a 7- year cycle. Georgia remains about $95,000 short of being fully funded for data collection. As a result, one has to wonder. Which species might slip away because we didn't notice their habitats were at the breaking point? How much carbon was not absorbed because land use changes had reduced the tree canopy? How many children's breathing disorders were impacted because of that small change? Imagined outcomes may not be as far-fetched as we think.
To paraphrase an old saying, "The only thing constant in life is change." Change can be for the better or the worse, and wise stewards of our environment know it's all about perspective. To see the forest, we must focus on the trees.