Beyond Timber: New Economic Opportunities for Southern U.S. Forests

Stretching more than 200 million acres from Texas to Virginia and from Kentucky to Florida, the forests of the southern United States provide billions of dollars worth of timber and other forest products each year as well as hundreds of thousands of jobs in the region. Though they comprise just two percent of the planet’s forest cover, they generate more pulp for paper by volume than any nation outside the United States. They also control erosion, ensure clean supplies of freshwater, and offer numerous hunting, hiking, and other recreational opportunities.

However, 31 million acres of these forests are expected to be lost to development between 1992 and 2040—an area the size of North Carolina. Strategies are needed to halt this loss.

This month, the World Resources Institute (WRI), supported by Toyota, launched the first in a new series of issue briefs that explore incentives for ensuring that southern U.S. forests continue to supply the timber, water, recreation, and other benefits—known as “ecosystem services”—that people depend upon. The first brief, Keeping Forest as Forest, overviews a range of economic opportunities that are available to southern landowners.

“We have a short window of opportunity to increase the conservation and sustainable management of large tracts of southern forests,” explains Todd Gartner, Senior Associate of Conservation Incentives and Markets at WRI. “In many ways, the next 20-30 years will shape the fate of these forests. There is a large generational transfer of ownership among families on the horizon, as well as a likely return of housing pressure.”

Yet there is hope. As Keeping Forest as Forest profiles, there are a variety of incentives for maintaining southern forests while addressing the threats they face, including:

  • Market incentives such as markets for sustainable timber, payments for watershed protection, and recreational user fees;
  • Fiscal incentives such as cost-share programs and tax deductions that help finance the expenses associated with reforestation, conservation, and sustainable forest management on private lands;
  • Liability limitations that reduce liability risk to landowners for taking voluntary, proactive steps to protect or restore forests via prescribed burns, endangered species protection, and other actions;
  • Land use instruments such as conservation easements, working forest easements, and transferable development rights; and
  • Education and capacity building programs that ensure landowners have access to information about best forest management practices.

“Both corporate and family forest owners are increasingly interested in economic opportunities beyond just timber for their woodlands,” said Lee Thomas, Chairman and CEO of Rayonier, a real estate investment trust with landholdings in the South. “This and subsequent issue briefs should help southern landowners explore these opportunities in more detail.”

WRI has found that many of these incentives are currently underutilized in the region. Awareness of them is mixed. And some incentives such as markets for watershed protection are just emerging and therefore are relatively novel to most landowners.

What can be done to increase adoption of the most promising incentives? Each issue brief will explore this and related questions.

“We hope that WRI’s timely series will raise awareness about the incentive options available for conserving and sustainably managing southern forests for the future,” said Patricia Pineda, group vice president of philanthropy and the Toyota USA Foundation. “As always, Toyota remains committed to raising awareness of environmental issues of concern and is proud to sponsor WRI’s work as part of the company’s commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative.”

Table 1 - Southern Forests by the Numbers

  • Area (2007): 214 million acres
  • Number of U.S. states in the region: 13
  • Share of world’s total forest area (2007): 2%
  • Share of world’s paper and pulp supply (2006): 18%
  • Share owned by government entities (2007): 13%
  • Share owned by industrial and financial companies (2007): 27%
  • Share owned by non-industrial private forest owners (NIPF) (2007): 60%
  • Share of NIPF owned by people 55+ years of age (2006): 75%

Citations for statistics listed above can be found in the Southern Forests for the Future publication.

To access these briefs and to learn more about southern U.S. forests, visit Developed by WRI with support from Toyota, this interactive site provides a wide range of information about southern forests, including current and historic satellite images that allow users to zoom in on areas of interest, overlay maps showing selected forest features and drivers of change, historic forest photos, and case studies of innovative approaches for sustaining forests in the region.

If you would like hardcopies of each issue brief, please send a request to [email protected].