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At the turn of the century, leaders in the emerging conservation movement warned that the United States would soon run out of trees. President Theodore Roosevelt observed: "If the present rate of forest destruction is allowed to continue, with nothing to offset it, a timber famine in the future is inevitable."

Gifford Pinchot, the father of the United States Forest Service, was another pessimist: "The United States has already crossed the verge of a timber famine so severe that its blighting effects will be felt by every household in the land."

These forecasts of a timber shortage were not without foundation. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the deforestation of vast tracts of land. By 1920, only 600 million of America's previous 1 billion acres of forest remained. The demand for cropland, building materials, and fuelwood had taken its toll on forests. Between 1850 and 1920, fuelwood consumption tripled, and industrial wood consumption quintupled. Rising population threatened to put further pressure on forests as wood was used for everything from homes and fences to railroad ties.

Many areas that once had held rich, expansive forests largely were depleted of trees. It has been said that when the first European settlers arrived, a squirrel could travel from Maine to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. But during the 19th century, much of the eastern United States was cleared for farm land. At one point, according to Forest Service Assistant Director Douglas MacCleery, farmers were clearing forests at the amazing clip of 8,640 acres per day, a rate that continued for over 50 years. As Roger Sedjo of Resources for the Future noted in America's Renewable Resources, "Not only had the area in forestland reached its historic low in 1920, but much of the forest that remained in the East was low-quality, low-volume, degraded forest, often used for grazing."

230 Billion Trees

In the past 70 years American forests have been reborn. The area of forestland is about the same: 600 million acres in the lower 48 states, or just under one-third of the total land mass; 730 million acres with Alaska and Hawaii. But America has more trees -- 230 billion now -- because there is greater tree density per acre. Indeed, there are more standing trees in America today than at any point in this century.

Particularly notable has been the resurgence of forests east of the Mississippi, where reforestation has been the rule rather than the exception. In the past 40 years, timberland east of the Mississippi has expanded by 3.8 million acres, in addition to the nearly three million acres in the eastern United States that have been declared wilderness in the past two decades. By 1980, New England contained more forested acres than in the mid-19th century; Vermont is now twice as forested as then. Fifty-nine percent of the northeastern United States is covered by forest, a fact that is particularly remarkable since the Northeast's population density, at 260 people per square mile, is over three times the national average. Today the southern United States is responsible for nearly half of the net annual forest growth in America -- some 10 billion cubic feet -- while also providing over half of the harvested volume of timber. Pinchot and Roosevelt hardly would have believed this was possible.

Appalachian Spring

This huge forest growth occurred largely because farmers left the eastern United States in favor of more fertile lands in the Midwest, allowing for tremendous reforestation in the East. Many areas that now house thriving forests once were cleared for logging or agricultural purposes. The Shenandoah National Park -- one of the most popular in the entire national park system -- was once rough, relatively unproductive farm land. Hilton Head, a South Carolina island resort known for its lush surroundings of oaks and palmettos, was cleared for agriculture before the Civil War. Beginning at the turn of the century, the island was managed by private owners for timber and wildlife, allowing the forest to grow back.

Moreover, the Eastern Wilderness Act of 1974 established many areas as "wilderness" -- defined as "a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings" -- that had previously been cleared, some within the past 60 years. This is even true of the Boundary Waters wilderness area in Minnesota, considered by many to be the premier wilderness area in the eastern United States.

In 1885, two-thirds of the original forest in the Adirondacks had been logged at least once. At that time, much of the land was made a New York State preserve to be kept as "wild forest lands." Today, there is talk of creating additional wilderness in Adirondack lands that had once been cleared for logging and subsistence farming. Earlier clearing of these lands has not prevented the return of the natural forest ecosystems.

Forest regeneration in the western United States has not been as dramatic as in the East. Nonetheless, even the West is experiencing net forest growth. Although some western states, such as Oregon and Washington, recently have been plagued with political conflicts over forest-management practices, forest planting in these states has increased over 50 percent in the past 20 years. In 1990, the United States Forest Service reported that Oregon and Washington ranked fifth and sixth in the nation in the number of acres planted.

The United States has approximately 900 trees for every American. And as American forests have grown more healthy and robust, they have provided more timber output. The standing volume of trees in America's forests is now 24 percent higher than just 40 years ago. Led by increases in hardwood forest inventories, timber growth has risen nearly 70 percent per acre since 1952.

There are three major reasons for the improvement of Americas's forests: 1) the development of better forest management techniques such as wildfire control; 2) rapid technological change that has reduced per capita timber demand; and 3) price signals that have given private land-owners an incentive to plant trees.

Taming Wildfire

Wildfire, both natural and manmade, devastated forests in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These fires whipped across forested expanses, consuming tens of thousands of acres at a time. At the turn of the century, forest fires consumed as many as 50 million acres annually -- an area as great as West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland combined -- and were responsible for hundreds of deaths. No wonder fire suppression became a major focus of the United States Forest Service (USFS) in the 1920s.

Because of its massive impact on forests, controlling wildfire has been perhaps the most important single development in encouraging the growth of America's timber industry. Today, wildfire rarely consumes one-tenth of its turn-of-the-century highs. While 1872 typically is remembered as the year of the Chicago fire, that same year a forest fire killed some 1,500 people and consumed 1 million acres of trees near Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Such disasters largely are a thing of the past thanks to fire-suppression efforts.

Forest fires, of course, often clear the way for forest regeneration. By clearing the land of older stands, fires enable younger trees to grow, particularly those that are shade intolerant and are unable to grow under the forest canopy. Some tree species, particularly certain species of pine, thrive as a result of smaller forest fires that eliminate competition from less-resistant species. Nonetheless, forest fires can decimate regions and destroy habitat. Controlling these outbreaks has allowed the development of healthier forest ecosystems in many areas.

The prospect of uncontrolled fires has been a major disincentive to the planting of new trees. Private land owners, although enticed by the prospect of profiting from the harvest of timber, were discouraged by the prospect of having their investment destroyed by wildfire. As a result, before fire suppression rose to prominence in after World War II, tree planting remained under 200,000 acres annually. By 1970, annual tree planting covered over 1.5 million acres, and today almost 3 million acres are planted. Most planting has occurred on private lands, and it is certain that much of it would not have occurred if private landowners had to worry about the threat of wildfire.

How Cars Save Trees

As improved fire control techniques have raised incentives to plant trees, rapid technological changes have led to more efficient use of forest resources. The development of wood preservatives, for example, has lengthened the lifespan of timber products such as railroad ties, which once composed over 20 percent of annual timber use. By 1960, railroads accounted for only 5 to 6 percent of timber consumption, as few new lines were being built and few ties had to be replaced.

The rise of the automobile spared millions of acres of forest. Rural communities no longer had to depend on rail transportation, with its enormous wood requirements. Autos also reduced the pressure to convert forest into farmland. This is because the acreage devoted to feeding draft animals -- one-quarter of all cropland at the turn of the century -- could decline sharply as autos replaced horse-drawn carriages and tractors replaced animal-drawn farm equipment.

The spectacular advances in farm productivity -- resulting from chemical fertilizers and pesticides, hybrid seed varieties, and farm machinery -- also limited the need for cropland acreage, even as America's population continued to rise. Average corn yields per acre, for example, have more than tripled since 1935. This has left more room for oak, hickory, and pine.

Today the oil and gas industry also protects North America from the kind of deforestation now occurring in much of the developing world. In 1850, the United States used approximately 50 percent of harvested timber as fuelwood, and firewood provided over 90 percent of the BTUs produced. Today, only 20 percent of wood consumption is fuelwood, as fossil fuels have largely displaced wood as an energy source for heating and cooking. By contrast, over half of the timber harvested in the rest of the world is used for fuel, and in lesser developed nations, the portion of timber consumed for fuel is 80 percent.

During this century timber mills have become vastly more efficient in using wood. Thinner sawblades and computer control of sawing have dramatically reduced waste, while the introduction of fiberboard and other wood products has turned what were once wood scraps into marketable products. As with many industries, market pressures have induced profit-seeking firms to develop innovative methods of increasing efficiency and reducing waste. The prospect of an inexpensive source of timber prompted Tree Technology International, Inc. to develop a paulownia clone that matures in seven years -- one-sixth the standard for hardwood.

Meanwhile, price signals have given landowners the incentive to increase the timber supply by replanting. Over 80 percent of forest planting -- covering approximately 3 million acres -- now occurs on private land each year. As long as there is a substantial demand for timber, these trends likely will continue.

This past Christmas, there was even a glut of Christmas trees on the market, resulting in prices as low as $5 per tree. Albert Gondeck, executive director of the Maine Christmas Tree Association, told the Associated Press that "There aren't enough people for all the trees." The glut occurred because so many trees were planted by speculators looking to make a profit.

For some applications, however, entrepreneurs have been driven to develop cheaper timber substitutes. While wood once dominated building construction, today concrete and steel have displaced much timber use. Such substitutions reinforce the general trend toward a more sustainable timber supply, brought about not by government planning, but by market responses to the potential of resource scarcity. As long as timber companies stand to make a profit from forest cultivation, they will replant. This is true even in the wake of natural disaster. When the slopes of Mount St. Helens were consumed by the volcano's eruption, Weyerhauser promptly planted more than 18 million trees over the following six years.

Spots of Decline

While overall trends are positive, the state of America's forests is not without blemishes. The Pacific Northwest has seen a modest decline in timber volume per acre -- approximately 5 percent in the past four decades. Northwestern forests have declined moderately, in part as a result of selective harvesting of Ponderosa pine that leaves the remaining stands more vulnerable to insect infestation. In the East, the population of black walnut has declined sharply as a result of heavy harvesting and only modest regrowth, although the number of black walnut tree farms is rising.

Some other popular species of trees have been ravaged by disease and pests. Gypsy moths, Dutch elm disease, and white pine blister rust have taken a terrible toll. The majestic American chestnut, once the primary hardwood in eastern forests, was virtually wiped out by a blight from Europe that arrived at the turn of the century. Growing insect and disease infestation is raising concern about the health of forests in eastern Oregon's Blue Mountains.

In spite of these problems, there is hope for some of the threatened species. Fusiform rust has attacked several species of southern pines, including the loblolly. Timber companies and forest officials have responded by interbreeding resistant strains of these species and developing resistant nursery stock to promote some recovery. Similar efforts have been to combat white pine blister rust. There is also the possibility of developing a hybrid, blight-resistant species of chestnut, or even some form of inoculation against the blight that would allow for the chestnut's reintroduction from nursery stock.

Members of the environmental establishment frequently raise the issue of America's disappearing old-growth forests as evidence of forest decline. The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society have been at the forefront in advocating that remaining old growth forests be placed in a permanent forest preserve, a position that was also endorsed by President Bill Clinton during his campaign. Interestingly, the protection of old growth forests is a relatively new concern in the environmental movement. Old growth forests were once considered the biological deserts of forest ecosystems, as few species are specially adapted to this environment. Indeed, much of the concern over preserving old growth forests seems to arise from an aesthetic preference for forests that have never been cut, or otherwise disturbed, by man. Yet there is little reason to fear the imminent destruction of old growth forests. USFS lands still contain over six million acres of old growth, some 3.3 million of which is protected from timber harvesting.

Deforestation Abroad

Were Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot still alive today, they would be in for shock. The "timber famine" that they believed was imminent has been forestalled indefinitely, and America's forests are healthier than at any other time in this century. With continuing technological improvements, the existing trend of forest growth, led by private owners, should continue.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said in much of the developing world, where deforestation continues to be the rule rather than the exception. Government mandates and subsidies from multilateral development organizations like the World Bank have encouraged rampant deforestation throughout the Third World. Moreover, poorer nations are often dependent on timber as an energy source, prompting increased levels of cutting, just as was common in 19th-century America. Whereas America's market economy encouraged a correction of this trend as timber resources became more scarce and prices rose, most developing nations maintain centrally controlled economies under which the reversal of these trends is less likely.

Nonetheless, there are promising signs. Brazil has amended its laws so as to reduce, although not eliminate, the incentive to clear rain forests. Many multinational corporations are managing forests in a sustainable manner. Yet while the environmental establishment pushes for an international forestry convention negotiated through the United Nations, the best hope for the world's forests lies not in bureaucratic control and multilateral agreements, but rather in the replication of what has worked in the United States. Then perhaps one day, experts also could speak of the rebirth of forests around the world, not just in America.
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Title Annotation:US forests
Author:Adler, Jonathan H.
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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