Forest Resources

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Forest Resources


Forests provide an array of benefits to human societies above and beyond their pivotal roles as habitat and environmental regulators in natural ecosystems. These benefits are often described as resources that people can draw upon for fuel, lumber, and recreational or commercial purposes. The perception that forests provide resources for people has been a prominent factor in spurring efforts to preserve forests. The signs that welcome traveling tourists at the entrances of the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire read “Entering the White Mountain National Forest: land of many uses.” When the U.S. government set up the National Forest system, it was eager to communicate that the land was not simply being taken out of commercial development; rather, there were many practical and productive reasons for preserving these woods.

A growing awareness on the part of governments and the general public, in the United States and around the world, of the benefits of forests to humans has given rise to government agencies and a thriving industry devoted to forest resource management. The mission of forest resource management is to develop, protect, and manage the multiple resources of forests through professional stewardship, enhancing the quality of life for the public while ensuring the conservation and sustainability of these resources.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Many parts of the world have seen drastic deforestation in order to exploit forest resources or to further other economic ends, and have also seen more recent efforts to rehabilitate forests and the resources that they provide. The history of forest resource management in the United States probably provides the largest and most complete account of how thinking about forest resources has evolved in the industrialized world. Therefore, the following historical discussion is focused on the stages of forest resource management in America.

The first stage of forest resource management in the United States can be called the age of forest exploitation. During the nineteenth century, many more trees were cut down than were allowed to grow nationwide. By the turn of the century, only one fifth of the land was covered with mature forest east of the Mississippi River. Faced with this scarcity, the public began to fear a shortage of timber. This scarcity was exacerbated by large, uncontrolled forest fires that followed after the indiscriminate cutting. In the early 1900s, much of the forests of the eastern United States consisted primarily of stumps, seedlings, and saplings; and large trees were unusual. The photographer and forester Fred W. Besley (1872–1960) of Maryland took a large number of photographs showing people posing next to large trees because such a posing opportunity had become special and rare. However, Besley’s interests in large trees helped to awaken the public’s awareness of the plight of the forests and the desirability of mature forests.

The years 1900–1940 could be called the custodial period, which followed the age of forest exploitation. During this period, there was increasing emphasis on protecting forests. In many states forests were surveyed, inventoried, and mapped for the first time. State tree nurseries were established and millions of trees were planted on abandoned farmland. Fire towers were built and forest rangers trained in forest fire prevention were hired and trained and employed in the renewed forests to monitor outbreaks of wildfires. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the government established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). As states acquired clear-cut and abused land for parkland, the CCC built roads, combated fires, raised fire towers, and


CLEAR-CUT: A parcel of forest that has been denuded of trees. Clear-cutting can be destructive of forests, particularly when the cycle of reforestation is slow and the processes of wind and water erosion of deforested land make it inhospitable to reforestation. However it can also be a tool for increasing the biodiversity of forests that have been protected from forest fires for many years.

DEFORESTATION: A reduction in the area of a forest resulting from human activity.

ECOLOGICAL SERVICES: The benefits to human communities that stem from healthy forest ecosystems, such as clean water, stable soil, and clean air.

FOREST MONOCULTURE: The development of a forest that is dominated by a single species of tree and which lacks the ecological diversity to withstand disease and parasites over the long term.

SUSTAINABILITY: Practices that preserve the balance between human needs and the environment, as well as between current and future human requirements.

grew millions of trees, enhancing the overall health of the new parklands. The eastern forests began to recover from earlier exploitation and lack of management. Similar forest conservation activity spread across the West as well, although the decimation of the forests had not yet progressed as far as it had in the East.

The custodial mentality began to give way to an attitude favoring the controlled productivity of forestland. The years 1940–1970 have been termed the sustained yield management period. During World War II (1939–1945) through the 1970s, forest harvests balanced forest growth. This era was characterized by growing demand for wood products as the economy grew vigorously. The U.S. population grew quickly during this time and became more urban. Professional foresters made resource management decisions autonomously, without public input. However, the forests were seen almost exclusively as a source of timber.

Eventually, people abandoned the single-minded focus on forest productivity when it became clear that this led to the growth of tree species monocultures. It dawned on foresters that multiple tree and other plant species were required to sustain a healthy forest ecosystem. During the years between 1970 and 1990 a multiple use management philosophy gained primacy. These years saw the rise of an inter-disciplinary approach to forest resource management as forest managers began to

seek guidance from a range of natural resource disciplines. This era of forest environmentalism began with an emphasis on preserving the beauty of the forests. Many states established open space programs and provided funds to purchase additional forested public land, and some areas were designated as wildlands. In a further break with the productivity emphasis, forest resource management plans began to consider social values as well as economic values.

Finally, the period from 1990 to the present time can be called the ecosystem management and forest sustainability period. Currently, ecological processes, biodiversity, and forest health are carefully examined. Economic outputs such as recreation and timber are considered to be by-products of a healthy forest and sustainable forest use. In much of the eastern and western United States, annual forest growth exceeds harvests. For example, growth is four times as large in volume as the harvests in Maryland’s state forests. Public participation in forest resource management now is represented by professional interdisciplinary teams, citizen advisory committees, and the general public, who attend community-based public hearings, and forest management plans are written with public input. The health and sustenance of forests are analyzed on a broad scale that transcends property and political boundaries. This analysis benefits from new information tools such as satellite imagery, computers, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

Issues and Impacts

Forests provide clean water and air, timber for wood products, wildlife habitats, stable soil, and recreational opportunities, and they beautify the environment. Furthermore, they are also an important economic resource producing marketable timber. In spite of this economic value, much forestland is being taken out of forest production, largely due to urban sprawl, which has claimed forested areas that will never be replaced. On the other hand, lands that have been designated as wilderness areas or parks will continue to provide many environmental and scenic benefits, but will not produce wood products. In the United States, governments and industry concerned with forest resource management are particularly concerned about the thousands of acres of underproductive forestland that is cut over for quick cash each year, and then left idle. Thus, poor forest management can lead to long-term economic losses. The unrealized economic potential of forests has prompted a concerted effort at national and local levels to ensure that forests be well managed for environmental, aesthetic, or economic reasons rather than left unproductive and inactive.


“Forest-related mitigation activities can considerably reduce emissions from sources and increase CO2 removals by sinks at low costs, and can be designed to create synergies with adaptation and sustainable development."

…"Climate change can affect the mitigation potential of the forest sector (i.e., native and planted forests) and is expected to be different for different regions and subregions, both in magnitude and direction."

"Forest-related mitigation options can be designed and implemented to be compatible with adaptation, and can have substantial co-benefits in terms of employment, income generation, biodiversity and watershed conservation, renewable energy supply and poverty alleviation."

SOURCE: Metz, B., et al, eds. “IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers.” In: Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

In the United States in recent years, conflict between industry and environmental groups over forest management issues has resulted in legislative inaction regarding federal forests. Such inaction can result in reduced forest resource productivity and loss of productive forestland, which in turn can be detrimental to the health of forest ecosystems and to the rural and urban communities that rely on the ecological services from those forests for environmental, social, and economic well being. To some extent, this recent national inactivity has slowed action at the global level, because many developing countries look to the United States for guidance and funds to tackle particularly difficult forest restoration and resource management problems.

Due to the sustained efforts of public and private forest management agencies and groups in many countries, information is spreading among the general public about the value of trees in sustaining healthy ecosystems and communities. At the same time, there is a growing recognition that many public and private forestlands require restoration and maintenance. In the United States the participation of citizens and community groups in the national forest policy process will be essential in infusing energy into forest resource conservation and enhancement efforts. Success in the United States in achieving a national forest policy that balances environmental preservation with long-term forest resource development will provide a model for much of the rest of the world in maximizing the human and environmental benefits of forests.

See Also Deforestation; Rain Forest Destruction; Sustainable Development



McEvoy, T. J. Positive Impact Forestry: A Sustainable Approach to Managing Woodlands. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004.

Smith, W. Brad, Patrick D. Miles, John S. Vissage, and Scott A. Pugh. Forest Resources of the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, 2002.

Web Sites

FAO. “Global Forest Resources Assessment, 2005: 15 Key Findings.” 2005. (accessed April 15, 2008).

International Paper Company. “IP Forest Resources Facts.” February, 2006. (accessed April 15, 2008).

U.S. Department of the Interior. “Forest Resources of the United States.” October 2, 2007. (accessed April 15, 2008).

Kenneth Travis LaPensee