Magazine article American Forests

Timberlands in Turmoil: As Timber Companies Divest, Carefully Managed Forestland Is Up for Grabs, and It Portends an Invisible-But Staggering-Crisis for the U.S

Magazine article American Forests

Timberlands in Turmoil: As Timber Companies Divest, Carefully Managed Forestland Is Up for Grabs, and It Portends an Invisible-But Staggering-Crisis for the U.S

Article excerpt

America's timberlands are in turmoil. From the remote backwoods to groves near small towns, forests are shrinking: 35 acres here, 500 there. The decline is so incremental it masks a crisis. Viewed from a national perspective, however, the pace of the losses is staggering:

The United States loses 1 million acres of forests annually, an area larger than all of Rhode Island, according to the U.S. Forest Service's Forests on the Edge: Housing Development on America's Private Forests, which also reports:

* 13 million acres lost since 1992, almost the size of West Virginia.

* 23 million acres gone by 2050, an area larger than all of Maine.

The culprit is clear. America's timberlands are being converted to development.

"You wake up one morning and the forest you took for granted down the road has bulldozers tearing up the trees," says Bob Simpson, vice president of forest programs for the American Forest Foundation.

Far more is at stake than neighborhood ambiance. The decline in forest acreage will put 340 animal species at risk of extinction, 20 percent of the total that depend on forests for their survival. It will affect the 180 million people who depend upon forests for their drinking water. Nearly 40 watersheds scattered across the eastern United States will shift to urban uses, increasing stormwater runoff and reducing both the quality and quantity of the water they provide.

Even the air we breathe is at risk. With every acre lost, the amount of carbon stored in trees will decline. This has broad implications for the management of greenhouse gas emissions, which are offset by forests sequestering carbon in trees, soil, and plant litter, as well as wood products.

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This is not the first era in American history to witness a widespread reduction in timberlands. When Europeans arrived, a billion acres of forests covered half of the land that would become the United States. The new settlers set to work immediately, whittling at the woods to make way for farms and cities. As settlements moved from the East to the Midwest and on westward, the clearing continued. By 1900, forests covered less than a third of the United States. That acreage has remained relatively stable for nearly a century despite some forest growth in the East, where former farmlands are maturing into second-growth forests.

Today America's forests include 504 million acres considered productive timberlands. The U.S. Forest Service and other government agencies own and manage around 29 percent, according to the Heinz Center for Economics and the Environment. The rest belongs to 10 million different private owners ranging from lone individuals to International Paper, whose 6.8 million acres make it the nation's largest forests-products company.

THE TIMO ERA

For industrial and family forest owners alike, the landscape began shifting in the mid-1980s. Driven by a combination of market forces and tax laws, timber companies started selling their lands. After decades of managing immense forest tracts to produce pulp and sawlogs for the mills they owned and operated, corporations like Crown Zellerbach and Diamond Occidental began divesting them at a pace that has accelerated to nothing short of dizzying. International Paper, which sold all its Maine holdings last year, recently announced plans that include selling its entire remaining timberlands, according to the Forestry Source newspaper.

More than half the nation's 68 million acres of private industrial timberland has changed hands since 1995, says Tom Tuchmann of US Forest Capital, LLC. Most of those sales were in the last five years.

"It's clear that all industrial timberland is for sale or has sold," says Bill Ginn, director of The Nature Conservancy's Global Forest Initiative.

The new owners are not rival companies. …

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