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Southern Forests for the Future

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.

Executive Summary

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:

  • Land use instruments such as conservation easements, development offsets, and transferable development rights;
  • Fiscal measures such as forest management-related and conservation-related cost-share programs and incentives;
  • Liability limitations such as legal assurances and the “right to prescribed burns”;
  • Market incentives such as markets for sustainably harvested timber and paper, payments for carbon sequestration, payments for watershed protection, and recreational user fees; and
  • Increased education and capacity building.

However, so far the performance of many of these measures has been mixed. For instance:

  • Despite being already available, some of these measures are currently undersubscribed in the region; Awareness of some measures is low;
  • Some of the market incentives, especially payments for ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and watershed protection, are just emerging and therefore are relatively novel for most forest owners;
  • The region lacks a sufficient number of pilot projects utilizing these incentives to raise awareness, stimulate adoption, and facilitate continuous improvement of incentive design; and
  • Some measures, such as voluntary development offsets or transferable development rights, have been piloted in a few locations but have yet to be scaled up.

These observations lead to a number of questions, including:

  • Which of these incentives and measures show the greatest promise for sustaining southern forests and their ecosystem services?
  • What are the barriers southern forest owners face that limit utilization of these measures? How can these barriers be addressed?
  • How can emerging incentives be piloted in the region to demonstrate effectiveness and refine incentive design?
  • How can incentives that have successfully been piloted in a few instances in the region be scaled up?
  • What other innovative incentives for sustaining forest ecosystem services are being pioneered elsewhere that could be replicated in the South?
  • How can awareness of these incentives and outreach be improved?

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:

  • Maps many of the natural features of southern forests, including extent and species composition;
  • Describes and, where possible, quantifies a range of ecosystem services that these forests provide to people, communities, and businesses at the local, regional, and global levels;
  • Provides a brief history of southern forests and the forces that shaped them;
  • Profiles the factors that will likely affect southern forest extent, distribution, composition, and health over the coming decades; and
  • Outlines a number of markets, incentives, and practices that might help ensure southern forests continue to provide a full range of ecosystem services into the future. Although public policies have an important role to play in sustaining southern forests, this publication focuses on non-policy measures.

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.

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