Policy commentary

Forest Concerns in the United States: Then and Now

Oct 18, 2010 | Roger A. Sedjo

This week's commentary provides a historical perspective on how issues in forest policy have changed over time with growing recognition of the local and global environmental benefits of forest conservation.

Roughly 20 years ago, U.S. national forests provided 12 billion board feet of timber per year for industrial uses; today they provide a fraction of that number, about 2 billion board feet per year. This dramatic change was not driven by new legislation, a lack of suitable timber, or by a new political party coming to power. Rather, the late 1980s saw the pendulum swing dramatically in favor of the environmental movement and away from the timber industry. The U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other agencies shifted from a focus on timber production and providing wood resources for industry, to managing the forests for a variety of purposes and not primarily for timber.

Forests today are a multi-faceted resource. They can provide not only commodities like wood and pulp for lumber and paper, but also an energy alternative to fossil fuels. Recently their value for maintaining biodiversity and carbon sequestration has been recognized. Furthermore, the provision of a host of environmental services including water and air purification, flood and erosion control, and wildlife habitat has now taken on greater importance. The challenge for policymakers is to manage forests so as to provide an optimal mix of these varied services to society.

Also, with total forest stock up by more than 50 percent since the first national inventory in 1952, the United States entered the 21st century with large timber reserves. A number of factors have driven this shift, not the least of which is the rise of commercial forest plantations on private land, mostly in the south. To set these changes in greater context, it’s time for a history lesson. 

Federal Forests

The early post-WWII period saw the mission of the Forest Service shift from custodial management to intensive utilization as increased harvests provided the wood that facilitated much of the post-war economic growth. The period after 1960 was one of consultation and confrontation. What are now commonly known as the timber wars saw much debate over the central issue of how and for what purposes federal forests should be managed. Timber interests and environmentalists battled to determine the extent to which the federal forests would provide timber or biological habitat and protection.

In the late 1970s, when I first became involved in forest issues and forest policy, the focus was still heavily on the management of federal forests for timber outputs and some thought this country might experience a timber famine, which has never materialized. The political debate shifted to the level of harvest from the federal forests, especially the National Forest System, which was largely politically determined. By the end of the decade, attitudes were shifting from the wise-use approach by traditional conservationists, which stressed management for use, to a more preservationist perspective espoused by environmentalists.

The 1980s and 1990s also saw early attempts to institute forest planning, as called for by the 1974 Renewable Resources Planning Act and guided by the 1982 Planning Rule. Although originally intended to be a quick and largely indicative process to determine relative management priorities, it frequently turned into a long, tenuous, and expensive activity. Mathematical models were developed to project alternative output levels including recreation opportunities, wildlife values, and timber harvests, as well as assess their impacts. Stakeholders were involved in the process to choose from among the alternative output mixes. Although multiple forest outputs were mandated by legislation, the projected levels and tradeoffs were left undefined and generated endless discussions.

When decisions about outputs were finally made, those opposed often made appeals, followed frequently by litigation. Furthermore, the lengthy periods required for planning and litigation often made forest plans obsolete before they could be implemented. Many plans were under revision for decades. The Forest Service has made numerous attempts to revise the process, with little success as the 1982 Rule still dominates. Today it appears poised to reengage in an attempt to refine the planning process although one wonders as to the chances of meaningful success.

Private Forests
While these debates were raging, the private forest sector began focusing on nonfederal long-term sources of timber. Cut-and-run logging practices had been largely abandoned by industry in the early part of the 1900s, and the likelihood of serious future timber deficits was an open question. Were forest management practices financially attractive enough to involve the private sector? Were the economics of tree planting basically favorable or did the government need to guarantee a reliable timber supply? After all, an investment in tree planting would not yield mature timber for at least 30 years.

In response to these challenges, beginning in earnest in the 1950s, private industry began an emphasis on planting fast-growing species that were managed for rapid growth and shorter rotations. These activities were particularly important in the south and often on former agricultural lands. Fortuitously, but also reflecting some foresight, these plantings provided the timber that ultimately replaced federal timber taken out of production after the late 1980s. Indeed, the timber famine anticipated by some never occurred. The post-WWII timber harvest boom was accompanied by extensive forest regeneration, in part by natural processes but also through widespread tree planting and forest management—often, but not always, promoted by government programs.

Global Forestry
On the international front, the 1970s and 1980s saw rising concerns about the loss of global forests in the temperate zone but especially in the tropics. However, systematic and continuing data that began to be collected in the late 1970s by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, presented a serious but less stark picture. Those data supported the notion of substantial deforestation in parts of the tropics, but surprisingly, also modest net forest expansion in many important temperate regions.

The period since the late 1970s has seen the continuation of both of these trends, with tropical forests continuing to decline even as temperate forest areas expand. The declines in the tropics appeared to be driven primarily, but not exclusively, by land conversion to agriculture uses. Concerns persisted over the loss of ecosystem services such as water flow, flood control, soil erosion, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity. Parts of the temperate world, by contrast, were experiencing expanded forest growth due to the abandonment of marginal agriculture lands and their restocking with forests by both natural and artificial means.

Climate Change

In recent years, forest issues have become more global in concert with growing concerns about global warming. We are now well aware of the duel relationship between carbon and forests. Forests sequester carbon out of the atmosphere but carbon also affects forest viability through its impacts on climate. As part of an expansive effort to address climate change and carbon emissions, many international programs from nongovernmental organizations now focus on reducing emissions from destruction and degradation of forests (REDD) and applying appropriate management principles to many tropical forest areas. Substantial resources, to the tune of billions of dollars, are being devoted to this effort.

Today, much of the attention has shifted from concerns over timber production and local environmental effects to global environmental and ecological issues. In addition to issues relating to the role of forests in managing carbon, the potential of biomass and wood as a renewable energy source is achieving primacy. Wood can be used to produce liquid transportation fuels and woody biomass has taken a position along side solar and wind as a renewable energy source.

Now and In the Future

Over the last two decades, U.S. industrial wood production of lumber, boards, and paper has remained essentially constant. Increased wood stocks from the regeneration campaigns of the late 20th century have left a substantial legacy of usable timber as well as a biologically rich American forest system. Forests are also being looked upon as a source of renewable energy while continuing to provide a host of local ecosystem functions as well as global carbon sequestration services.

Indeed, with the recent economic downturn, the forest industry has been struggling with stagnant markets, excess supply, and weak prices. This is a consequence of the perfect storm of timber production from both the domestic and international markets together with the worldwide decline in construction and a decline in some important paper markets, especially newsprint. Forests will continue to be important over the next 50 years, however, not only for timber and local environmental services as in the past, but also for their role in the global carbon balance and perhaps as biofuel in a changing energy landscape.


Roger Sedjo is an RFF senior fellow and director of the Center for Forest Economics and Policy. He served on the Forest Service “Committee of Scientists” (1997-1999) that reviewed forest planning.