WASHINGTON — A comprehensive U.S. Forest Service report examines the ways expanding populations, increased urbanization, and changing land-use patterns could profoundly impact natural resources, including water supplies, nationwide during the next 50 years.
Significantly, the study shows the potential for significant loss of privately-owned forests to development and fragmentation, which could substantially reduce benefits from forests that the public now enjoys including clean water, wildlife habitat, forest products and others.
“We should all be concerned by the projected decline in our nation’s forests and the corresponding loss of the many critical services they provide such as clean drinking water, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, wood products and outdoor recreation,” said Agriculture Under Secretary Harris Sherman. “Today’s report offers a sobering perspective on what is at stake and the need to maintain our commitment to conserve these critical assets.”
U.S Forest Service scientists and partners at universities, non-profits and other agencies found urban and developed land areas in the U.S. will increase 41 percent by 2060. Forested areas will be most impacted by this growth, with losses ranging from 16 to 34 million acres in the lower 48 states. The study also examines the effect of climate change on forests and the services forests provide.
Most importantly, over the long-term, climate change could have significant effects on water availability, making the US potentially more vulnerable to water shortages, especially in the Southwest and Great Plains. Population growth in more arid regions will require more drinking water. Recent trends in agricultural irrigation and landscaping techniques also will boost water demands.
“Our nation’s forests and grasslands are facing significant challenges. This assessment strengthens our commitment to accelerate restoration efforts that will improve forest resiliency and conservation of vitally important natural resources,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
The assessment’s projections are influenced by a set of scenarios with varying assumptions about U.S. population and economic growth, global population and economic growth, global wood energy consumption and U.S. land use change from 2010 to 2060. Using those scenarios, the report forecasts the following key trends:
•Forest areas will decline as a result of development, particularly in the South, where population is projected to grow the most;
•Timber prices are expected to remain relatively flat;
•Rangeland area is expected to continue its slow decline but rangeland productivity is stable with forage sufficient to meet expected livestock grazing demands;
•Biodiversity may continue to erode because projected loss of forestland will impact the variety of forest species;
•Recreation use is expected to trend upward.
Additionally, the report stresses the need to develop forest and rangeland policies, which are flexible enough to be effective under a wide range of future socioeconomic and ecological conditions such as climate change. The Forest and Rangelands Renewable Service Resources Planning Act of 1974 requires the Forest Service to produce an assessment of natural resource trends every 10 years.
The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Forest Service lands contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation’s clean water supply, a value estimated at $27 billion per year.