If you are trying to build a nest egg, you need to know two things: how to eliminate losses in your portfolio and the predicted rate of return on your investments. This is not unlike planning for the future of Southern forests. We need to know both how to slow down the rate at which forests are being lost from the landscape as well as where and how much protected forest acreage is likely to be added in coming decades. The latter issue is the focus of the GCPO LCC’s latest project, “Mapping the South's Protected Forests of the Future.”
This project is different from most LCC projects, however, in that the GCPO LCC is working in close partnership with Mississippi State University (MSU) under a grant co-sponsored by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The grantors liked the original proposal so much that they requested the focal area be expanded to include the entire Southeast region encompassed within the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS).
The U.S. Endowment is an 11-year-old public charity created to benefit the North American forest industry. The organization focuses on three areas:
- Forest health
- New income streams for forest landowners
- Revitalizing forest-rich communities
The USFS, of course, is the nation’s agency that manages more than 193 million acres of national forest lands. The State and Private Forestry program of the USFS also cooperates closely with state forestry agencies to deliver numerous forestry programs aimed at over 5 million private forestland landowners.
History of the thought process behind mapping “future forests”
Peter Stangel, Senior Vice President for the U.S. Endowment, explained that about a decade ago, the Endowment, USFS, and the Department of Defense (DOD) recognized vast changes occurring on the southern landscape, as traditional forest products companies were divesting their forestland, transferring ownership in many cases to Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs) and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs).
“Many folks interested in forests (feds, universities, conservation groups) didn’t understand TIMOs and REITs or their priorities,” explained Stangel. “So we created a forum to bring together people with interests in forests to help them get to know one another and learn how to work together. In particular, the group focused on how to retain large contiguous blocks of working forest land in the South, which have great economic, cultural and environmental values.”
This Partnership for Southern Forestland Conservation, as it was called, eventually evolved into the U.S. Forest Service program known as “Keeping Forests as Forests.” Daniel McInnis, an Environmental Issues and Policy Analyst with the USFS State & Private Forestry program in the Southern region, is helping coordinate this program along with several diverse partners. McInnis is also liaison to the Southern Group of State Foresters Water Resources Committee, as well as the EPA Region 4 Regional Office. Through funding and grants to state forestry agencies, his program leverages state and local resources for a variety of purposes related to forest health and sustainability.
A lot of information is now available on how economic and climatic trends will affect southern forests, most notably through the USFS Southern Forest Futures Project. “The missing piece of information has been future projected conservation,” said McInnis.
Dr. Kristine Evans, formerly the GCPO LCC’s Geomatics Coordinator, is the MSU principal investigator in the College of Forest Resources, and Rachel Greene, who previously led LCC-sponsored research on open pine benefits for wildlife, will be Project Coordinator. Evans said she felt a deciding factor in the grant award was “the capacity to build on over a million dollars of previous work by the SECAS Landscape Conservation Cooperatives in compiling and prioritizing spatial information on the best areas for forest retention and conservation in the Southeast.”
This project ties together the efforts of the U.S. Forest Service to predict the extent of the South’s future forests and the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy in identifying areas across the entire Southeast U.S. landscape that maximize ecosystem integrity. It will be guided by a steering committee of representatives from state and federal agencies, forest products companies or trusts, and non-profit conservation organizations.
The where and why of tracking forest expansion
The Southern Forest Futures Report predicts up to 23 million acres of forest could be lost in the Southern U.S. by 2060. Loss will be driven primarily by four interacting factors: population growth, climate change, timber markets, and invasive species.
However, a variety of entities also have plans to expand protected forest areas in the future, for example:
- The DOD’s Army Compatible Use Buffer Program seeks to reduce noncompatible uses at the edges of military installations; it recognizes that keeping working forests is best for the military.
- The State of Georgia’s Gopher Tortoise Initiative seeks to avoid the listing of this species as endangered to prevent regulatory impacts on private landowners. Their initiative is seeking to protect upwards of 132,000 acres of pine forest.
- The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife initiative seeks to promote voluntary conservation on private lands, focusing on gopher tortoise (open pine) habitat in the South.
- Many other entities and watershed protection efforts are also focusing on forest protection.
“Our primary purpose in developing this future protected forest data layer is to help visualize what the Southeast landscape will look like if conservation groups are successful,” explained Stangel. “We can not only identify gaps in protection, but also look at potential centers of sustainable forestry, priority habitat for at-risk species, important recreation areas, and many other key values.”
McInnis agreed, adding “As we move Keeping Forests as Forests toward our goal of conserving 70% of historic forestland cover across the region, all the data layers at our disposal - including those underlying the LCC Conservation Blueprints - will be important. I do envision that this product, combined with the SECAS Blueprint and other work that’s been done, will help inform decisions on where to focus our efforts and where points of leverage exist. This particular future protected forest layer will be critical because we could potentially leverage USFS authorities and Keeping Forests as Forests partners’ intersecting priorities alongside these areas slated for protection.”
Both Stangel and McInnis anticipate the added potential for identifying areas throughout the Southeast that may not currently be planned for protection but could be priority candidates for some form of conservation. “We will get the LCC to produce preliminary maps, have our committee of expert advisors evaluate these maps and recommend changes if necessary, and see what we can we do from there,” said McInnis.