This report introduces readers to the forests of the southern United States. It provides data, maps, and other forms of information about southern forests, their condition, and trends.
Additional information and resources are available at www.SeeSouthernForests.org, an online interactive information portal developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI).
Stretching from Texas across to Virginia and from Kentucky down to Florida, the forests of the southern United States are a vast global, national, and local natural treasure. They provide a variety of benefits or “ecosystem services.”
For instance, southern forests yield 18 percent of the world’s pulpwood for paper while comprising just two percent of the world’s forest area. They protect water quality, prevent erosion, and help regulate climate by storing carbon dioxide—the leading greenhouse gas. In addition, they provide opportunities for millions of people to hike, hunt, and experience natural beauty.
Southern forests are dynamic and have a long history of change. Prior to European colonization, these forests were shaped by natural disturbances such as climatic warming after the last ice age, hurricanes, and lightning-induced fires, as well as by fires set by Native Americans. Beginning in the 1600s, agriculture, timber extraction, and settlements built by Europeans and their descendants gradually spread across the region, affecting the extent, distribution, and composition of southern forests. Over four centuries, more than 99 percent of southern forest acreage was cut or cleared at one time or another as the region was developed. Much of the land regenerated over time as secondary forest, demonstrating the resiliency of forests. Yet the net extent of southern forests has declined by an estimated 40 percent since the dawn of European settlement.
A number of factors or “drivers of change” are projected to affect the quantity (extent and distribution) and quality (composition and health) of southern forests over the coming 2–3 decades, with some increasing and others decreasing forest quantity or quality. For example:
Suburban residential and commercial development is projected to convert 19 million acres of forest between 2020 and 2040 and increase forest fragmentation.
In some areas of the South, forest extent may expand as agricultural land reverts back into forest, but this trend will not sufficiently offset forest loss due to development.
Climate change may have a number of impacts, including shifting the distribution of some plant and animal species, increasing invasive species threats, inundating low-lying coastal forests, intensifying droughts, and exacerbating wildfire dangers.
Wildfires remain a risk as a consequence of decades of suppressing natural, low-intensity fires.
Outbreaks of pests and pathogens—such as the gypsy moth, hemlock woolly adelgid, sirex wood wasp, butternut canker, emerald ash borer, laurel wilt of redbay, and many more—will affect numerous types of trees—such as oak, hemlock, pine, butternut, and ash—and may alter forest species composition.
Invasive species—such as cogon grass and Japanese stiltgrass— threaten to crowd out native species, alter natural ecosystem processes, and increase wildfire risk.
Going forward, these drivers of change will likely impact the ability of southern forests to continue to provide a full range of ecosystem services. How landowners, businesses, conservation organizations, governments, and citizens respond and adapt to these and other drivers ultimately will shape southern forests for the future.
Approximately 87 percent of southern forest acreage is privately owned. Of this amount, about two-thirds is held by individuals and families. The future of southern forests thus rests largely in the hands of private landowners. Given the entailed forgone revenue, creating protected areas out of their forests may not be a viable option for many of these landowners. However, a number of measures exist or are beginning to emerge that could create incentives for private forest owners to conserve and sustainably manage their forests. These measures include:
However, so far the performance of many of these measures has been mixed. For instance:
These observations lead to a number of questions, including:
Southern Forests for the Future sets the stage for addressing these and related questions by introducing readers to the forests of the southern United States. It provides data, maps, and other forms of information about southern forests, their condition, and trends. In particular, this publication:
Southern Forests for the Future is designed to serve as a resource for conservation organizations, concerned citizens, landowners, academic institutions, the private sector, government agencies, and others involved with forest stewardship. Additional information and resources are available at www.SeeSouthernForests.org, an online interactive information portal developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI).
The site includes satellite imagery of southern forests, detailed interactive maps on forest features and drivers of change, case studies, historical photos, and other data. With this information publicly available, WRI aspires to raise awareness of the importance of these forests and help empower stakeholders to implement innovative measures that will ensure southern forests for the future.