Opportunities for forest conservation and sustainability in the South

American Forest Foundation

This article is sponsored by the American Forest Foundation.

Our supply chains are linked to a global economy, whether you are talking commodities such as palm oil from Indonesia or coffee beans from South America. Even close to home, timber, pulp, wood fiber and biomass from the southern United States are all part of this global business. 

We also know that the source of these materials, our far-off tropical forests, savannahs and grasslands are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on land. They host an intricate web of countless species of plants and wildlife. The same is true when we look here at our Southern U.S. pine and hardwood forests.

Years of deforestation and other unsustainable industrial practices rightfully have left us concerned about these global forests and lands, and the wildlife that inhabit them. Many brands and supply chains are doing their part to step up and address this.

Thankfully, in the United States, widespread deforestation is not common. We can thank regulations and ethical best practices set forth by the U.S. industry, conservation organizations and government alike. But there are still wildlife species at-risk. In fact, according to a new analysis from the American Forest Foundation (AFF), 517 forest-dependent wildlife species are at risk in the southern United States. Of these, 224 are already listed as threatened or endangered, and 293 more are on the candidate or petitioned list for the future.

These species issues can be linked to historical occurrences and present day pressures, such as invasive species, the suppression of natural fire and community expansion, not the forest products industry itself. Contrary to what might be the case in other parts of the globe, in the United States, the forest products industry and wildlife habitat can — and do  successfully coexist. In fact, when you look specifically at family-owned forests of the South, the industry even strengthens conservation. Because of this, brands that depend on wood fiber should look more closely at these forests and find ways to capitalize on this momentum.

Consider this, families and individuals own nearly 60 percent of the forests across the South, more than corporate America or the government. Today, 51 percent of wood fiber removed from forests and flowing into supply chains comes from these small tracts of family-owned land.

Currently, a small but significant percentage of landowners use active management to maintain their forests for the benefit of both wildlife and citizens. And there are opportunities to get more landowners to use these techniques.

Recently, AFF surveyed small forest landowners in the southern United States. Of the respondents, 87 percent stated protecting and improving wildlife habitat was the top reason they owned land. Seventy-two percent already have conducted one or more forest management practices for wildlife such as improving waterways, treating invasives or conducting a prescribed burn, to keep the forests on their property healthy.

What’s better is that 73 percent state they are planning to or want to do more in the future. What is stopping them is an uncertainty about what practices to do, where to find resources and funding to get the work done.

Perhaps most important, the survey shows that harvesting and sustainable management for wildlife are positively correlated. According to the survey, family forest landowners who harvest were more likely (85 percent) to manage for wildlife than those who have not harvested (62 percent).

This is because landowners who harvest or thin are working with foresters and professionals. Therefore, they are getting the knowledge and guidance they need to use best management practices for forest health. They also have a source of income, allowing them to have the needed funding to manage their forests, often for what matters most to them: wildlife.

And there are plenty of examples of success where landowners were able to overcome barriers. Earl and Wanda Barrs have been landowners for more than 30 years. In the 1980s, the Barrs purchased 411 acres and started turning their land into the Gully Branch Tree Farm. Today, they manage 1,500 acres of pine and hardwoods for timber production and have a deep passion for forest conservation.

The Barrs have been successful because they are regularly working with professionals and have had markets for their wood products  ranging from logs to biomass. With ready access to markets for timber, the Barrs have been able to sell their American Tree Farm System-certified sustainable timber every year.

This income has helped the Barrs keep their land in trees and to help the wildlife. They take on additional forest management practices that help species and thus the Barrs’ land hosts red-cockaded woodpeckers, deer, wild turkey and more. Markets help ensure we have stewards of the land, such as the Barrs, that protect biodiversity and safeguard the benefits these forests provide, such as clean water and wildlife habitat.

That said, only 40 percent of landowners in the South have conducted harvesting or thinning activities. The challenge is to get more landowners engaged in a wide variety of active forest management practices to maintain their lands for the benefit of both wildlife and wood. 

Fortunately, a growing number of successful, collaborative projects out there are recruiting landowners to do just that.

In northern Alabama, for example, several companies and organizations such as AFF are working together to reach out to landowners in the biologically diverse Cumberland Plateau. The partnership's goal is to restore thousands of acres of important habitat for wildlife, all while providing sustainably grown wood for the mills in the area.

The partnership is already working with 350 landowners who collectively own more than 26,000 acres. It is providing landowners with the tools and resources they need to manage for wildlife and wood. Already landowners are beginning to conduct forest practices such as thinning out overgrown forests and replanting native pine and hardwood tree species.

Among all our global forests, southern U.S. forests in particular have a positive story to tell. And there are opportunities to grow and expand this. Continuing to invest in this region, both through sourcing and through helping the family forest owners who own the land, will ensure our southern forests do not reach a point of needing further regulation. 

Together we can continue to ensure here at home, we have forests for the future, our wildlife are provided for and consumers have the sustainable wood products they count on.