'Ecosystem services' at risk from suburban development -- USFS report

Large swaths of private forest, which account for most of the forested acreage in the United States, could be replaced by housing in the coming decades, potentially compromising water quality, carbon sequestration and other "ecosystem services" that those forests provide, according to a new report from the Forest Service.

About 56 percent of the nation's forests are privately owned, and those forests are key to protecting urban watersheds and wildlife habitat, controlling erosion and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But those forests, about three-quarters of which are found in the East, are also the most at risk, the report concludes.

Between 2000 and 2030, housing density will increase on approximately 89,000 square miles in the United States, or 57 million acres -- an area larger than the state of Idaho, the agency estimates. On top of the development pressure, private forests also face a long list of other threats, including invasive species, heightened risk of catastrophic wildfire, air pollution and climate change impacts.

Of the 15 forested watersheds identified in the report as the most threatened by new housing, 11 are in the Southeast and the remainder are in New England (Greenwire, Aug. 11). Insect pests and diseases threaten private forests in both the East and West, and the forests most vulnerable to unnaturally hot-burning wildfires are located in the West and parts of the Southeast, according to the report. Ozone pollution is most severe in California forests and several areas in the East.

Wildlife habitat to human habitat

The transition from forest to housing developments is driven by a number of factors, including the sale of large tracts by timber companies that have found real estate to be more profitable than selling logs for timber and pulp. At the same time, high estate taxes have left forest-owning families little option but to sell land to developers rather than passing landholdings on to the next generation.

"The Private Forests, Public Benefits report shows that now, more than ever, we need to take an 'all lands' approach to managing our nation's forests, whether they are national forests or under the stewardship of state or private entities," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said upon the report's release last week.

Jad Daley, northern New England program director for the Trust for Public Land, which works with landowners to help them keep forests intact, said the report does a good job of underscoring how important Eastern forests are in the broader effort to protect forests nationwide, regardless of ownership or jurisdiction.

"One of the things that jumps out to me, and should jump out to the rest of the country, is how starkly the East stands out," he said. "So much of our management focuses on the big dramatic landscapes in the West, and rightly so. But what this shows is that Eastern forests, which provide water supplies for our cities and important recreation opportunities for densely populated areas, is that these forests are under more pressure than any other forests in the country."

And if those forests are lost, as the report predicts, the region faces not only a loss of tree cover, but the costly prospect of replacing the services they provide, Daley added. "These Eastern watersheds are under severe development pressure," he said. "If we lose these watersheds, we'll have to spend billions of dollars building new water treatment plants to provide those services we now get for free from forests across our region."

Cities would be wise to invest in private forest conservation now to avoid having to build expensive infrastructure later, added Tom Martin, CEO of the American Forest Foundation.


New York City is a prime example of the benefits of forest conservation in protecting water supplies, he noted. Under its ongoing land acquisition program, the city, which is home to about 9 million people, has spent about $1.5 billion dollars to protect more than 108,000 acres in upstate New York through conservation easements and land purchases aimed at preserving the city's watershed, according to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

"Assisting landowners to protect their own watershed is a no-brainer," Martin said. "It's far cheaper than building a new water treatment plant."

Scott Jones, CEO of the Forest Landowners Association, an Atlanta-based organization that advocates on behalf of private forest owners, said population growth in the Southeast -- one of the fastest-growing areas of the country -- is part of the reason why the region is seeing more pressure on private forests than any other part of the country.

But broader economic forces are also at work, including the migration of the pulp and paper industry overseas and burdensome estate taxes that often force private landowners to sell their holdings.

"The current tax structure is not very favorable to private landowners holding on to their land," he said. "The land value is higher than what you can produce on your lands. And the loss of markets is huge in the Southeast right now, with the pulp and paper industry moving offshore."

Finding solutions

It is now up to policymakers to address the problems illuminated by the Forest Service's report, which is part of a larger agency project called "Forests on the Edge," designed to identify both the benefits that forests provide and the threats they face.

The key to keeping private forest lands intact is to provide incentives for landowners to do so, Martin and Daley noted.

One way to do that is to pay landowners for the sequestration benefits of their forests, which not only keeps trees standing but also helps offset emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), Daley said. CO2, the world's most abundant greenhouse gas, is absorbed by trees and other live vegetation, making large forested tracts some of the world's most important carbon sinks.

"The forests that they've identified [in the report] as seeing the most development pressure are also some of the forests with the best capacity for carbon sequestration," Daley said, noting that about 12 percent of CO2 emissions are offset by forests -- a figure that U.S. EPA estimates could be almost doubled if strong incentives were put in place (Land Letter, Jan. 7).

"But if the kind of development occurs that's described in this report, we could actually go backwards from the carbon sequestration rates we have now," he added. "We can ill afford to go backwards with carbon sequestration at a time like this."

Alexander Evans, research director for the Forest Guild, an organization of professional foresters that promotes sustainable forestry practices, said the report raises "a number of good points," but should have more strongly emphasized the potential loss of carbon storage capacity from the development of private forests.

"I see the loss of carbon storage potential through conversion of forest land as a big threat," he said.

Several climate change bills floated in Congress over the past year have included financial incentives for private landowners to retain their woodlands and manage them to enhance their carbon-absorbing capacity. But so far, none of the legislative proposals have made much headway.

Short of a comprehensive climate bill, Daily pointed to other legislative programs that could aid in long-term forest conservation.

For example, fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides funding for state and local conservation projects, and the Forest Legacy Program, which offers grants to states for the purchase of conservation easements and acquisition of threatened lands, would go a long way toward protecting the nation's remaining private forests, Daley said.

The House recently passed a bill to restore full funding for the LWCF, which typically receives less than one-third of the $900 million authorized by Congress when the fund was created. Forest advocacy groups are hoping the Senate will pass its version of the bill when lawmakers return from the August recess (Land Letter, Aug. 5).

Evans, of the Forest Guild, advocated paying landowners for other ecosystem services besides carbon sequestration. "We need new models for compensating private forest landowners for the public goods they provide," he said.

Some organizations are already compensating landowners for the clean water, wildlife habitat and other public benefits intact forests provide, he noted. One example of these emerging markets is conservation banking, which allows forest owners with high-quality wildlife habitat on their lands to sell credits to developers needing to mitigate for destroying comparable habitat (Land Letter, Jan. 8, 2009).

Expanding the market for biomass energy, along with new tax breaks, could also help, Jones of the Forest Landowners Association added. "If we had access to new markets, such as biomass, and relief from the estate tax, those would be extremely high incentives for landowners to hold on to their forests," he said.

Conservation easements, which involve the purchase of development rights from landowners by nonprofits or other entities, should continue to be a primary means of protecting private forests, Martin said. And both federal and state agencies can work more closely with owners to assist with sustainable forest management, he added.

Despite the myriad pressures faced by landowners, Martin said opportunities for helping preserve private forests -- combined with the desire of many landowners to live amid trees instead of housing developments -- leaves him optimistic about the future of private forests.

"I'm still hopeful," Martin said. "The one thing all these landowners have in common is they have an incredible attachment to their land. They want the land to be healthy. We need to take that and tap into it and help take away the disincentives, and then make it easy for them to go find these resources."

Click here to read the report.

Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.

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