How Sustainable Are Our Nation’s Forests?

Posted: August 2, 2011

Sustainability is desired level of success when we look at how we’re doing in relationship to the natural world. A new report on the sustainability of our nation’s forests can now give us some ideas of how well we’re caring for our forestlands.

Sustainability is desired level of success when we look at how we’re doing in relationship to the natural world. A new report on the sustainability of our nation’s forests can now give us some ideas of how well we’re caring for our forestlands.

The second National Report on Sustainable Forests for the United States is on the streets. The first report was released in 2004 and, now, seven years later, we have a second snapshot to see how across the nation our forests are changing and the challenges they face. The new report, prepared by the USDA Forest Service, provides data and analysis aimed at addressing forest conditions and challenges and strives to create discussion about forest sustainability.

While the National Report on Sustainable Forests focuses on the big picture –the public and private forests of the nation, the key findings are relevant to Pennsylvanians and are worth considering in our local context

Nationwide our forest area is stable. For Pennsylvania, the most recent assessment suggest a small decline in forest area as development in our more urban areas outpaces farmland abandonment.

Nationwide fragmentation and forest loss is occurring in many regions and localities, owing mostly to development. According to the US census, Pennsylvania has one of the lowest population growth rates, yet data from other sources find we have one of the highest forest and agriculture land cover conversion rates in the nation.

Nationwide levels of forest disturbance are rising, due to insect-induced mortality. Pennsylvania has its share of disturbance challenges – emerald ash borer, hemlock wooly adelgid and elongated scale, gypsy moth, and other native and non-native insects are changing the face of our forests.

Nationwide wood products production is declining relative to growing consumption, driving increases in imports. In Pennsylvania, the economic downturn, especially in the housing market as it affects hardwood consumption, has shuttered many hardwood sawmills. This change in demand may, in the long-term, affect the ability of some forest owners to hold their land and lead to further development and fragmentation.

Nationwide there is sustained interest in public and private collaborations through projects devoted to landscape-scale conservation. In Pennsylvania, the dialogue about sustaining forests is expanding. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ landscape conservation initiatives are increasing sustainable forest discussions. Twenty-eight woodland owner groups, covering about three-quarters of the state, are helping private landowners make sustainable forest decisions. Forest industry is also supporting forest sustainability initiatives through training and education.

 The National Report suggests that three overarching issues emerge from their analysis. First, nationwide and locally we are going to face challenges as we lose forest land near urban centers. This loss of forest cover will affect ecological and social values such as clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and recreation. At the same time, loss of forest cover has economic costs as employment tied to forestry and forest products decline. While harvesting trees is not the leading reason among private landowners for holding land, a lack of markets will over time mean more land is lost to development. Secondly, forests are at risk from climate change and bioenergy demand. Already, there is evidence of forests affected by changes in temperature, precipitation, and insects. We will know more about the effects of these changes in the coming decades. At the same time that change is happening, we know forests sequester large amounts of carbon and that many people believe they are a source of carbon neutral energy. Harvesting our forests for energy could alter ecological and economic landscapes. Finally, forest health and disturbance patterns could lead to unexpected consequences. Careful management and tracking are important on all forests.

 To read the National Report on Sustainable Forests – 2010, enter the title into your web browser. If you want help managing your woodlot following principles of sustainable forestry, request a copy of Forest Stewardship Principles for Landowners by calling the Forest Stewardship office at Penn State (800-235-9473) or download a copy at

 The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 234 9473 (toll free), send an email to, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, Forest Resources Extension, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and USDA Forest Service, in Partnership with Penn State’s Forest Resource Extension, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Jim Finley
Phone: 814-863-0401