United States Forests Past and Present

Area of Timberland
Forests in All U.S. Counties. USDA/USFS

The arrival of the very earliest European settlers in North America initiated large land clearing efforts which had some impact on forest acreage - especially in the new colonies. Lumber was one of the first exports from the New World, and these new English colonies produced great quantities of quality wood for England, mainly for shipbuilding.

Until the mid-1800's most of the wood that was felled was used for fencing and for firewood. Lumber was only made from the best trees that were easiest to cut. Still, there were nearly one billion acres of forests in what was to become the United States in precolonial 1630 and stayed that way until the end of the 18th century.

The 1850 Timber Depletion

The 1850's faced a major boom in cutting trees for lumber but still used as much wood for energy and fences as ever. This depletion of the forest continued until 1900 at which time the United States had fewer forests than ever before and less than we have today. The resource had been reduced to just over 700 million forested acres with poor stocking levels on many, if not most, of the Eastern forest.

Fledgling government forestry agencies were developed during that time and sounded the alarm. The newly formed Forest Service surveyed the Nation and announced a timber deficit. States became concerned and formed their own agencies to protect remaining forest lands. Nearly two-thirds of the net loss of forests to other uses occurred between 1850 and 1900. By 1920, the clearing of forests for agriculture had largely subsided.

Our Present Forest Footprint

The area of forest and woodland in 2012 in the United States was 818.8 million acres. This area includes 766.2 million acres of forest and 52.6 million acres of land that contains tree species with an average stature limited to less than 16.4 feet in height at maturity.

So, about 35 percent or 818.8 million acres of the 2.3 billion acres of land area in the U.S. is forest and woodland today as compared to about one-half in forests in 1630 at around a billion acres. Over 300 million acres of forest land have been converted to other uses since 1630, predominantly because of agricultural uses carved out of the Eastern forest.

The forest resources of the U.S. have continued improving in general condition and quality, as measured by increased average size and volume of trees. This trend has been evident since the 1960s and before. The total forestland acreage has remained stable, not losing forest acreage, since 1900.

Our Present Forest Concerns

Should the health of our private and public forests be only determined by the measurement of the number of trees and their size and volume?

Most government managers of public American forests believe that the world's climate change is now having a negative effect on forests throughout North America. Whether this will take place over a short or long cycle is debatable, but adverse climate change is taking place.

This change in the North American climate, along with decades of forest fire suppression, have created heavier exposed dry fuel loads under dense forests. These conditions are resulting in increased risks of catastrophic, stand-replacing fires. You will dramatically see severe forest destruction when visiting many,  if not most, of the U.S. National Parks and Forests in the west.

Drought and increasing wildfire destruction are also providing a direct increase in insect and disease outbreaks. The current area that is infested is 25% of the total susceptible forest area. This means a continued loss of trees in U.S. forests due to insect and disease epidemics.

Increased mountain pine beetle outbreaks throughout the western US often follow several years of drought along with an increase in wildfire starts. The beetle takes advantage of the stress of drought along with scorched pines stressed by wildfire.