Jul 29, 2014

The Forests Are Gaining On Us…And Other Truths the Public Should Know

According to Hardwood Review, "Industry advocacy took a back seat for many of us during the recession, but it was also a quieter period for those who would shut down or more tightly control the industry in the name of sustainability.  As the economy finds renewed footing, so too will the anti-industry forces.  Fortunately, the U.S. government occasionally throws the industry a bone with which to defend itself."


In December 2013, the USDA Forest Service released draft tables from “Forest Resources of the United States, 2012.”1 While the report is still considered preliminary, we now have permission to share the statistics within. This article offers just a few quick talking points we can glean from the new data.

Hardwoods are Increasingly Underutilized
Of the 10 billion cubic feet (bcf) of net hardwood growth on timberlands in the Eastern U.S. in 2011, only 4.2 bcf were “removed” (through harvesting or loss to things like urban expansion. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume this volume was harvested). That means that—after discounting for natural mortality—we only harvested 42% of the net growth that was available to harvest. Fifty-eight percent of that growth was left in the forest to grow (Figure 1). Thus, the ratio of net hardwood growth to harvest was 2.4:1. That is the highest growth-to-cut ratio (lowest cutting percentage) since at least 1976.

When less is harvested than grows—year after year after year—the result is rising inventories of hardwood timber (Figure 2). Even with the increasing rate of natural mortality (Figure 1), the rate of growth in the hardwood growing stock inventory accelerated from 1997 to 2012.

We Have More and Bigger Trees
One of the arguments of industry critics is that today’s forest is made up of smaller and smaller trees. At least for hardwoods, that claim is not supported by the data. In fact, since 1953, the hardwood growing stock size-distribution curve has been shifting up and out). The 2-inch diameter class with the peak volume was 9-11” for the 45 years leading up to and including 1997. Over the next 15 years, the peak volume shifted up to the 13-15” diameter class.

In addition, the volume within each size class of sawtimber (all trees 11” and above) increased at every successive survey. And, the actual number of sawtimber trees increased by 48% from 1977 to 2012. Together, it means we not only have more sawtimber volume in the forest, but that the volume is contained in more, larger trees.

Is it Sustainable?
Ecologists and activists argue that sustaining hardwood timber inventories does not equate to sustaining ecosystems. True. Water, wildlife and other ecosystem values must also be sustained. However, we’ll argue that sustainable tree inventories are a necessary component of ecosystem sustainability—and perhaps a good surrogate indicator of it. So, here are a few summary talking points to commit to memory and take home (or to the legislature or the local school):

  • U.S. industry harvests just 42% of the annual growth in hardwood timber that is biologically available to harvest, leaving 58% to grow.
  • Standing hardwood tree volume has doubled over the last 50 years, and the rate of increase has accelerated in the last 15 years.
  • There were an estimated 10.3 billion large (11”+) living hardwood trees on U.S. timberlands in 2012—48% more than in 1977.
  • Between 2007 and 2012, the volume of hardwood growing stock increased in every hardwood-producing state except Minnesota, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington. Even in these states, current hardwood inventories are 47% to 129% higher than in 1953.
  • Between 2007 and 2012, the volume of hardwood growing stock increased in every Eastern hardwood species, as well as Alder in the West.

––Dan Meyer, Editor, Hardwood Review

1All data in this article from Oswalt, Sonja N., W. Brad Smith, Patrick D. Miles, Scott A. Pugh. 2014. Forest Resources of the United States, 2012. Washington, DC. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington Office (in preparation). All graphs and analysis by Hardwood Review.

Figure 1

Figure 2