Let's Get the Story Straight on the State of North American Forests and Deforestation
Deforestation means the permanent or long-term conversion of forest lands to other land uses due to urban expansion, industrial development, resource extraction or agricultural development. Despite what many people think, harvesting trees for wood and paper production in a sustainable manner does not cause deforestation.
Deforestation is different from loss of forest cover which includes deforested areas but is also caused by harvesting, fire, insects and disease. These are not permanent losses. The forest will return given time, good growing conditions and often a helping hand through planting trees.
The area occupied by forests in Canada (about 350 million ha*) has remained stable over the last two decades(i) while in the United States it increased by 3 percent over the last 60 years, from about 300 to 310 million ha between 1997 and 2012(ii).
The volume of growing stock on U.S. timberland (which takes into account the number of trees and their size) has increased by 58 percent(iii) over the last six decades and by 16 percent between 1997 and 2012. In Canada, the actual harvest has been 44 percent of annual growth.(vi)
However, across the United States, some regions lose more forests than they gain. A couple of examples:
- Development of cropland, pasture and urban areas in the Southeast and South Central Regions between 1907 and 1997 caused roughly 400,000 ha in forest losses per year.(v) These losses were balanced by large additions of new forest land in Northern regions primarily from agriculture.
- Between 1990 and 2010, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island, lost a total of 133,000 ha of forest area from the construction of suburban houses, vacation homes, golf courses and commercial development.(vi) The forest area increase for the Northeast region as a whole was thanks to reforestation of 155,000 ha of abandoned agricultural areas in New York State.
Assuming current urban growth continues, the expansion of cities in the United States between 2000 and 2050 is projected to reduce forest areas by about 11,830,000 ha.(vii)
Over the last 15 years annual deforestation in Canada has averaged about 45,000 ha (excluding reservoirs) with about 20,000 ha due to land clearing for agriculture and 5,000 to 11,000 ha due to expansion of the oil and gas industry.(viii) Flooding forested areas to create reservoirs for large hydroelectric projects caused 35,000 ha of deforestation in the mid-1990s and a further 28,000 ha in the mid-2000s. Since 1990, 0.33 percent of Canada’s total forest area has been converted to other uses.
Unlike deforestation, sustainable forest management changes the forest but does not destroy it. Well-managed forests can be used and enjoyed forever. Forest products, like lumber, pulp and paper provide an essential incentive for forest owners to keep their forest land instead of selling it for development.
* 1 hectare (ha) = 2.47 acres
(ii) Oswalt, Sonja N.;Smith, W. Brad; Miles, Patrick D.; Pugh, Scott A. 2014. Forest Resources of the United States, 2012. Gen. Tech. Rep. WO-xxx. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington Office. (in preparation)
(iii) US Forest Service, 2012 (FIA Program data)
(iv) The Conference Board of Canada 2014. http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/environment/forest-cover-change.aspx
(v) Masek, J. G., et al. (2011), Recent rates of forest harvest and conversion in North America, J. Geophys. Res., 116, G00K03, doi:10.1029 /2010JG001471.
(vi) Sung Bae Jeon, Pontus Olofsson & Curtis E. Woodcock (2014) Land use change in New England: a reversal of the forest transition, Journal of Land Use Science, 9:1, 105-130, DOI: 10.1080/1747423X.2012.754962. To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1747423X.2012.754962
(vii) Nowak, DJ and Walton, JT. 2005. Projected urban growth (2000-2050) and its estimated impact on the US forest resource. J of Forestry:103: 383-389
(viii) Natural Resources Canada, 2013. State of Canada’s Forests
Phil has over 28 years of international experience related to sustainability and the forest products industry. He currently leads Two Sides North America, a non-profit that promotes the unique sustainable features of print and paper, as well as their responsible production and use. Two Sides operates globally in five continents with members that span the entire graphic communication value chain. Phil has written extensively on sustainability and environmental topics related to the forest products sector. He received his Bachelor and Master's of Science degrees from McGill University in Montreal. He is a private forest owner and sustainably manages over 200 acres of forestland for both recreational and economic benefits.