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Northeastern woodlands: hanging in and stocking up.

Despite the nation's most intensive people pressures and land development, these forests are gaining in both acres and volume.

The woodlands of the northeastern U.S. have a checkered history. Our pioneering forefathers cleared this vast wilderness--from New England south to West Virginia and west to the Mississippi River--and then, as the tide of settlers moved relentlessly westward, the trees grew back, just in time to feed an industrial revolution the likes of which had never been seen before. After that, the forests of the Northeast were called upon to supply materials to see us through two world wars.

You could argue, with good reason, that the eastern woodlands are more important today than ever before. Many critical concerns--water quality, air pollution, global climate change, the need to escape the stresses of urban life--are linked with the health of this precious resource. On that front, we have some encouraging news. Results of our most recent reinventories show that forest acreage in the Northeast has held its own and tree stocking has improved dramatically.

Thousands of acres of forestland were cleared in the Northeast for agriculture and development during the 1970s and '80s. But these losses have been more than offset by additions to the resource base, mainly abandoned pasture and cropland that has reverted back to woodland. The net result: forestland increased by some 2 1/2 million acres or 2.5 percent between inventories.

About 105 million acres or 59 percent of the region's total land area is now in forest. This is remarkable for a region with a population density (260 per square mile) that is nearby four times the national average.

Forestland has held its own in all the northeastern states (Figure 1). Noticeable acreage gains were recorded in New York, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Four northeastern states--Maine, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Vermont, in that order--are the most densely forested states in the U.S. More than three-quarters of the total land area of those four is woodland. As a matter of fact, nine northeastern states rank among the nation's top 15 in percentage of land in forest: Changes at the county level reveal some key local shifts in land use. Most counties recorded increases in forested acreage between inventories. Gainers outnumbered losers by more than two to one. The most noteworthy increases took place in agricultural locales such as the lake plain region of New York, the glaciated counties of northwestern Ohio, and the bluegrass area of Kentucky.

Substantial declines occurred in counties where significant amounts of forestland have given way to development and agriculture, as in the area around New York City, for example, and on the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia).

Forest now accounts for a majority of the land area in half of the region's 506 counties. The most densely forested area extends from Maine down through the Appalachians to southeastern Kentucky. Counties with 80-plus percent of their land area in forest are not uncommon (Fifure 2).

The reinventories reveal a significant regional gain in large trees. The number of trees bigger than five inches in diameter had been increasing at a rate of btter than 100 million a year and now totals about 13.6 billion. The volume of timber if these trees increased by approximately 24 percent between inventories. That translates into a gain of about 230 cubic feet per acre of timberland. Overall, timer volume in the region now averages more than 1,300 cubic feet per acre, a new high in the recorded history of forest surveys in the region.

Mayland tops all other states with a pre-acre mean of about 1,850 cubic feet. A few counties now average more than 2,000 cubic feet (Figure 3). Comparisons of current annual net growth with removals reveal a continuation of the trend.

The average size of timber also is bigger. Large increases in volume have been recorded for all but the smallest-diameter classes (Figure 4). Along with the gains in size have come increases in the volume of high-quality timber. There is still a large amount of lower-grade material in the region's forests, but the amount of sawtimber qualifying as log grade II or better is much greater now.

Most of the major timber species--the spruces, pines, oaks, maples, ashes, yellow-poplar, black cherry--shared in the volume gains. One glaring exception is balsam fir, which is down substantially. Virtually all of the fir decline occurred in Maine, where the spruce budworm has been active.

On the whole, the region's woodlands are doing quite well. The area of forestland is on the upswing, stocking has improved, timber is bigger, and the volume of quality timber has increased. Moreover, comparisons of net growth with removals indicate a continuation of the trend.

Such a rosy picture might tempt the forestry community to sit back, take credit, and rest on its laurels. But some not-so-subtle events prevent complacency. For example, the spruce budworm has so damaged Maine's fir resource that it will take years to heal. Gypsy moth continues to plague oak forests in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Some high-elevation red spruce is suffering from ozone damage. Continued land fragmentation may be threatening certain valuable plant and animal communities, and the forest is hardly producing up to its potential.

Even so, gains outnumbered declines, and a record of past recoveries from pestilence and maltreatment has proven the resource to be resilient. Some watchful monitoring backed with good stewardship can guarantee a continued flow of the kind and quality of products and services we've come to expect.

For additional information about the forest resources of the Northeasr, contact the Project Leader, Forest Inventory and Analysis, Northesatern Forest Experiment Station, 5 Radnor Corporate Center, 100 Matsonford Rd., Radnor, PA 19087; 215/975-4075. David Gansner and Thomas Birch are on the research staff of the Forest Service's Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, and Susan Lacy is a forester with the Northeastern Area, State and Private Forestry, Radnor, PA.
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Author:Lacy, Susan E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:993
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