One of the most ambitious items on President Biden’s recently released climate agenda is to conserve at least 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030, a goal that reflects the administration’s commitment to conservation and reforestation.
It can be easy to overlook or take for granted the impact that forests have, but they are one of the planet’s most vital natural resources. The environmental benefits that forests provide to humanity is nearly incalculable, but suffice it to say that life as we know it would be impossible without our forest lands.
Forest lands process carbon dioxide and turn it into breathable oxygen, which both provides air for us to breathe and reduces the amount of CO2 contributing to the greenhouse gas effect and planetary warming. Trees also help fight flooding and soil erosion and purify air, water, and soil, all of which contribute to a healthier environment. All of these benefits for us are in addition to providing the habitat for countless species of plants and animals that promote global biodiversity.
Of course, forests have economic and commercial value as well. Timber has been an important commodity for centuries, used for fuel, construction, and the production of paper and certain textiles. However, using timber means cutting down trees and reducing the natural benefits of forested land. There is often a tension between the desires to maximize forests’ economic utility and to preserve forest lands and their role in a healthy environment.
Over the last century, the U.S. has walked a fine line in preserving its forest lands. Despite experiencing dramatic population growth—which can lead to deforestation, both to use timber and to clear land for new development—the amount of forested land in the United States has remained at around the same level over time, between 700 and 800 million acres. One contributing factor in this respect has been the U.S. Department of the Interior and its subsidiary, the U.S. Forest Service, which was created in 1905. As the federal government has grown its role in forest management through the acquisition and management of forest lands, it can ensure protection for some amount of forest while also designating some areas for timber production. Equivalent state government bodies perform a similar role.
While public forest holdings have grown, they represent a minority of the nation’s total forest lands. Currently, 42% of U.S. forest land area is designated as national forest or other public land. And because some private owners are primarily concerned with economic return on their land holdings, they may not have the same incentives for environmental preservation as public landholders do. These landowners may engage in clear-cutting or other practices that damage forest ecosystems, and if they grow new forest specifically for timber harvests, those lands may only contain one or two tree species all growing at the same age, which will limit biodiversity.
One factor affecting public and private ownership of forest lands is where America’s forests are located. Most public lands are found in the Western United States, where forested area is more scarce. In contrast, most of the highly forested areas of the U.S. are in the Northeast and South, where public ownership of land is less common. And many of those highly forested states in New England and the South have historically relied on timber production and processing as a major industry.
Forest land is not infinite, so whether as an environmental protection strategy or to reap continued economic benefits, some states see significant forest growth each year. To identify the locations with the most growth, researchers at CLIQ used data from the U.S. Forest Service to calculate the annual net growth-to-removals ratio for each state. This measure is defined as each state’s net growth (tree growth minus mortality) divided by annual removals (trees cut or diverted to non-forest). The researchers also calculated the proportion of total land area that is forested in each state, along with the number of live trees on forest land in each state.
The analysis found that there are approximately 31.6 million acres of forest land in California, or about 32% of all California land. Each year, California manages a 2.04 net growth-to-removals ratio of forest trees. Out of the 39 states with complete data, California is experiencing the 18th least forest growth. Here is a summary of the data for California:
For reference, here are the statistics for the entire United States:
For more information, a detailed methodology, and complete results, you can find the original report on CLIQ’s website: https://www.cliqproducts.com/blogs/news/states-experiencing-the-most-forest-growth