USA — WASHINGTON — Development, climate change and invasive species could threaten up to 23 million acres of forestland in the American South over the next 50 years, according to a major scientific report released Tuesday by state and federal forestry officials.
It would be the equivalent of paving over every one of Alabama’s acres now covered in timber.
The USDA Forest Service and the Southern Group of State Foresters say the report is meant to guide public and private landowners in how to manage their forests in the face of severe weather, population growth and non-native plants and pests. The Southern Forest Futures Project report was released in a news conference Tuesday in Atlanta.
“Forest Futures gives state agencies information to enact actions now to counteract projected threats and issues as they come along and ensure that we don’t threaten sustainability in the long run,” said Charlie Morgan, Mississippi state forester and chair of the Southern Group of State Foresters.
The three-year study predicts increased urbanization, an extended fire season, less stable ownership of forest property, increased demand for forest-based recreation, and an unknown future demand for using timber products to produce bioenergy.
“The summary report clearly demonstrates the urgent need for developing a collaborative strategy to conserve and restore Southern forests. A healthy and prosperous America relies on the health of our natural resources, and particularly our forests,” Forest Service Southern Regional Forester Liz Agpaoa said in a prepared statement.
Seventy percent of Alabama is forestland, the third highest timber acreage in the U.S. behind Georgia and Oregon, and forest-based companies employ 48,000 people in the state, according to the Alabama Forestry Commission.
The prediction about longer fire seasons and more forest fires comes from forecasts for precipitation and temperature changes, said David Wear, a co-author of the report and an economist with the Forest Service Southern Research Station. A drier, hotter climate would cause massive wildfires to occur more often than they do now, and there may be tighter restrictions on prescribed burns because of concerns about air quality, according to the report.
“In addition to increasing the severity of wildfire events, the drier conditions and increased variability in precipitation that are associated with climate change could hamper successful forest regeneration and cause shifts in vegetation over time,” the report states.
Foresters are also concerned about the spread of plants, insects and diseases that could harm native species of trees and wildlife and limit productivity. Some of the most significant invasions are from species introduced just in the last 10 years, the report says.
Wood-related sectors of the South’s economy contributed more than 1 million jobs and more than $51 billion in payroll in 2009, according to the report.