By Richard Romano on May 30th, 2011
A recent report produced by the U.S. Forest Service and Southern Group of State Foresters, The Southern Forest Futures Project, is the fruit of a multiyear research effort that forecasts changes in southern forests between 2010 and 2060. It’s a lengthy document , and there are many impacts on forests. For our purposes here, we can hoist some salient findings (emphasis added):
Expanding demand for timber in the South encouraged forest landowners to increase their investments in timber production thereby expanding timber supply (ch. 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 is now described as a planted pine type. Notably, the area of planted pine continued to expand even after the market peaked in 1998 and harvesting began to decline. This, 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. And although the planting of pines is widespread throughout the region, the vast majority of pine plantations are located in the Coastal Plains.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, the period in which 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 (ch. 5). While growth still exceeds removals, the reservoir of southern biomass and the stores of carbon it represents have begun to level off.
The timber market also includes timber harvested for papermaking.
What’s the outlook for the forests of the south?
Future timber markets could affect the forests of the South in two important ways. First, strong timber markets encourage retaining forests rather than converting them to other land uses, so high timber prices can help delay or even reverse forest losses in areas where forest management is still feasible. Secondly, strong timber markets encourage continued investment in forest management, and forecasts suggest that the area of planted pine could increase from the current 19 percent to between 24 and 36 percent by 2060. Strong growth in market demand could result from the emergence of markets for bioenergy, but appears less likely to emerge from markets for traditional forest products. As a result, timber market growth would likely be centered on small diameter pines with strong market interactions between paper and bioenergy industries (ch. 10).
Not that replacing a naturally regenerating forest with a single species (planted pine) is necessarily the best strategy from a biodiversity standpoint, but it beats another strip mall. The biggest danger to the forests? Urbanization and the development of forestland for residential or commercial real estate use.