Forest Health in the United States
SOURCE: R. Neil Sampson and Lester A. DeCoster © 1998 American Forests
Millions of private decisions, complex market forces, and more than 205 million people living among 384.5 million acres of forests combine to determine forest condi-tions in the East. Exotic plants, animals, and pests spread rapidly into native forests here.
Forest air, water, and soil are impacted by emissions from population and industrial centers, with some eastem forests receiving up to 15-20 times more nitrogen than westem forests. This has been the focus of a great deal of study as to the effects of "acid rain," but research results on the effects of acid rain alone have generally failed to show it as a direct cause of tree death.
The subject of airbome pollutants is a lot more complex than simply acid rain, and the effects of these chemical inputs to the forest have proven very difficult to document in most cases. Localized impacts have been demonstrated, but widespread regional or national effects have not. Ask a forest ecologist, however, whether or not a major change in a primary nutrient is likely to have an unbalancing effect on an ecosystem, and the response is that it will.
There is tremendous pressure toward fragmenting the eastern private forests into smaller tracts as people seek rural lifestyles. Large blocks of public land and industrial land are under pressure to serve recreation needs and nature-preserve priorities. Part of serving those needs is, of course, reducing visible signs of forest management.
These forests constitute much of the Nation's sustainable supply of wood for products. Most of the lands available and capable of sustaining both wood supply and environmental functions are in the East---80 percent of the forest industry lands and almost 80 percent of the nonindustrial private forest (NIPF) lands. Stated another way, of the 490 million acres classified as productive timberland (land capable of producing 20 cubic feet or more of wood per acre per year and not dedicated to other uses) in the United States, almost 361 million acres (74 percent) are in the East.
Many eastern forest regions are dominated by mid-aged forest stands and structures---the result of shifts away from centuries---old patterns in logging, agriculture, and settlement. This may produce forests that look thrifty and healthy at the moment, but which lack the diversity of stand structures needed to support historical biological diversity in the region. In particular, there is a lack of the savanna structures and the complex (often called "old-growth") structures, replaced instead by widespread areas of dense structure.
Species shifts are evident. Major species such as chestnut are gone, and oak is being replaced by shade-tolerant species such as maple. The result is a forest that is not, in many places, similar in composition or structure to the historical forests that developed on these sites. The present-day hardwood forests---regrown following cultivation in the early 20th Century or heavy logging in the late 19th Century---are relatively even-aged over fairly large areas.
They are heavily intermixed with people, roads, and communities. Active forest management and activities such as logging have been limited as the forests were regrowing, but could become more common---and more controversial---if future market conditions favor more active logging.
Forest health questions, which have been largely concerned with epidemic outbreaks of pests such as gypsy moth and bark beetles, seem certain to become more complex in the future. As dense forests grow older, and trees become larger, more crowded, and competitive, will we see stress-induced pest epidemics, large-area die-off, or wildfire problems similar to those that are already evident in other regions? In many cases, we do not know. It is not a possibility that should be ruled out, however, because if it occurs in combination with public pressures opposing active management intervention, the result could be major---and potentially destructive---change over large areas inhabited by millions of people.
The challenge, as these forests become older and less stable, will be to introduce needed management without repeating the widespread forest removal that characterized the earlier logging eras. Efforts such as the forest products industry's Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and the forest certification programs currently being developed by organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council, may help create the credibility and public support that will be required to address future forest health problems.
The dominance of government-owned forests in the West creates special conditions. The West has a little more than 58 million people, living primarily in a few concentrated areas-56 percent in California alone. Most of the 363 million acres of western forests are held in large blocks of federal ownership, and most of the other forest areas---held privately or by states---are also in large blocks.
State forest practice acts are in place in many western states, providing regulatory controls on private forest management. The tendencies toward centralized regulatory control contributes to large areas with uniform conditions. Large expanses may be cut rapidly, or have no cutting at all; they may be dominated by uniform stands of very old forests, or very young. Recent endangered species regulations requiring management of some areas devoted to the needs of one species are creating additional uniformity.
Fire suppression activities since settlement have reduced the diversity created by presettlement fire patterns. Structural diversity has been lost even in remote wilderness areas, as airborne fire fighting capability suppressed many of the smaller fires that would have created "patchiness" in the landscape, and the late fall and early spring bums ignited by Native Indians were eliminated.
Available timberland is fairly rare in the West. Although the West contains half of the Nation's total forests, it has only 27 percent (129 million acres) of the available timberland. Two-thirds of those timberlands (80 million acres) are on public lands, making public land policy a major economic issue with western communities, and important in terms of the national timber economy, as well.
Uniform management of large areas increases the risk that a major disturbance can rapidly cause widespread changes in the landscape. These disturbances include massive die-offs from insects, diseases, and other agents, and wildfires that are far larger, more intense, and more environmentally destructive than those that historically disturbed the forests.
Federal managers trying to respond to these conditions are torn by incompatible goals, differing interest group pressures, and conflicting federal legislation. Recent government downsizing has reduced budgets and staffing assigned to maintain public forests while costs of catastrophic events are rising. The U.S. Forest Service spent nearly $4 billion on forest fire control from 1985-1994, as large fires swept through fuel-heavy western forests. The visible results of that expenditure were around 18 million acres of bumed-over landscapes, many of which will take a century or more to return to their pre-fire condition.
The total cost-fire fighting expenditures, lost lives, property and resource damage, and the energy and money devoted to political battles over what to do with fire-damaged timber-runs into uncounted billions of dollars. Measurable social and environmental benefits of the experience are few, while institutions and civil discourse suffer greatly from the political controversies stemming from such legislation as the 1995 "salvage rider."
On balance, the current wildfire situation argues for a new approach to public land management, but the issues---fire ecology, risk assessment, prescribed fire and smoke, impacts of mechanical treatment---are both complex and, in today's world, controversial. The need for increased public dialogue and agreement is clear, as is the need to reach agreement quickly as forests continue to face additional damages. In places like the Boise National Forest of Idaho, where around one-third of the ponderosa pine forest has been burned since 1989, time is quickly slipping away.
Forest health conditions in other forest ownerships in the West are deeply affected by the over-arching federal ownerships. Forest traumas don't stop at boundary lines, and insect and disease infestation, exotic species invasions, fires, and other problems tend to move freely from one ownership to another. Because federal lands are often in more remote, high-elevation locations, the changes that occur in them may flow downhill to affect lands and waters below. Conversely, the people and animals from the populated areas may create unusual impacts or import exotic species into areas that would otherwise seldom be impacted.
Private decision making and economics are also affected by the federal presence. Development pressures may be concentrated into very small private areas near public forests, and local or regional timber markets can be disrupted as federal timber goes on and off the market due to political decisions made in Washington.
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