USFS report flags housing encroachment, water use as major threats to renewable resources

Jan 28, 2013

How will the nation’s stock of renewable resources look over the next 50 years? And how can we prevent depleting them faster than they can renew themselves?

In an attempt to answer these tough questions, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) released in December a report that examines the current status of renewable resources across the country, and determines how trends in demand for those resources could shape the future.

The crystal ball-gazing exercise yielded some interesting results. While the study found that millions of acres of forests are likely to be lost to housing and commercial development and demand for water is expected to outstrip supply, both grazing and timber harvesting are generally expected to continue to use natural resources at a sustainable rate over the next 50 years.

The broad-brush study, which is issued every 10 years in compliance with the Forest and Rangelands Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974, assesses all forests and rangelands across the lower 48 states, including private land. It covers traditional renewable resources like timber, forage, fish, wildlife and water, as well as more recently recognized resources like carbon sequestration, recreation, and a range of ecosystem services.

“The scope of the legislation directed us to look at forests and rangelands on all ownerships across the United States, … and the renewable resources on those lands,” explained Linda Langner, RPA Assessment national program leader. “We don’t get down to very detailed analyses, because it’s just not possible.”

The Forest Service 2010 Resources Planning Act (RPA) Assessment (so titled because it assesses the time period between 2010 and 2050) found that over the next 50 years, the nation’s forests are expected to shrink between 16 and 34 million acres, particularly in the southern U.S., while human development is expected to expand between 41 and 77 percent. The gradual replacement of forestland by cities, suburbs and exurbs (low-density, largely affluent housing in semi-rural areas) will be driven by expanding populations and economic growth.

The decrease in forest volume is not expected to happen all at once. Although the study predicts that forests will continue to expand in the near term, peaking between 2020 and 2030, this will be followed by a decline in volume through 2060. However, only in one future scenario is forest inventory in 2060 less than in 2010.

The report is designed to help natural resource managers and policymakers plan for the fluctuating supply and demand for renewable resources. The forecasts are not set in stone; by taking preventative measures, the hope is that managers can help stave off overuse or shortfalls before they occur.

One particular point of concern in the report is the current trend of well-heeled home buyers—often recreationists or retirees—seeking homes “close to nature” in low-density developments that fragment existing forest and range, often on the fringes of public lands.

“As those lands start to be developed and get cut up,” said Langer, “it means that you now have people up against that boundary. And that basically becomes the wildland-urban interface.”

Housing creep into forest and rangeland ecosystems brings with it a host of new issues. Broadly, the study showed that the wellmeaning human housing invasion into scenic forested areas and rangelands is taking a profound toll on those areas’ ability to sustain healthy ecosystems.

“The expansion of housing in the wildland-urban interface and housing development around public lands fragment natural land covers and often lead to additional development,” read the report. “At-risk species tend to be prominent in areas with high human-population densities, where land use intensification has occurred, or where species with restricted ranges are concentrated. Given the projected land use changes, biodiversity in the United States is expected to continue to erode.”

In addition to threatening at-risk species, the study also found that the gradual nibbling away of forest and range by housing developments is leading to slackening growth in forest inventory and reduced carbon stocks.

The finding puts an interesting twist on the idea, widely touted within the current administration, that recreation should be embraced as the emerging economic driver in rural communities. In an address at a 2010 National Landscape Conservation System Summit in Las Vegas, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar drew a clear connection between increasing economic dependence on recreation and the health of natural resources.

“Many rural western economies now rely as much or more on public lands for tourism and recreation, open space, and an increased quality of life, as they do for logging, mining and grazing,” Salazar claimed. “As more people move into smaller western towns, income from the energy, mining, lumber, farming and ranching industries represents a decreasing share of the total personal income in these communities. …This action reflects the growing importance of the 27-million acre National Landscape Conservation System to local economies, to the health of communities, and to the conservation of some of America’s greatest landscapes.”

Yet the USFS report suggests that any economic boon brought by an exploding population of recreation-hungry newcomers eager to live in natural surroundings and close to recreational amenities has a dark side; the people who flock to buy high-value houses surrounded by trees and sagebrush may have a positive economic impact, but they also represent one of the prime causes of fragmentation of habitats and stress to ecosystems.

Swelling populations will also result in an increased demand for water. The report forecast that because of a reduction in water supplies brought on by climate change, and an increased demand due to larger populations and a warmer climate, water demand will outstrip supply over the course of the next 50 years.

“Water was actually somewhat of a surprise for us, because this is the first cycle that we’ve been able to incorporate climate change into the water assessment,” said Langner. “If no climate (change) had been incorporated in the analysis … it really wasn’t that bad. It was similar to 2000, where use is increasing [but] there have been so many increases in efficiencies … that use wasn’t increasing nearly as much as population increase was.”

Perhaps the most interesting discovery of the report for natural resource users like ranchers was this: on the whole, cattle are not overgrazing the nation’s rangelands.

“The forage outlook for livestock grazing on rangelands was actually quite positive,” said Langner. Though Langer clarified that localized areas might still get overgrazed, she added, “I think certainly if they’re managed in an appropriate manner, the use level that we’re expecting can be met sustainably.”

Indeed, Langer pointed out that the study suggests ranching can play an important roll in protecting natural resources from expanding cities and developers wanting to convert scenic, natural properties to housing.

“When I first started [at the Forest Service], there was such a negative feeling about grazing on public lands,” said Langer. “Now there seems to be a real interesting switch in terms of ranches that border the public lands are seen as buffers, and that people don’t want to see them cut up into ranchettes and housing because they’re seen as protecting those federal lands.”

Timber also fared well in the report. Provided that there is no sudden explosion in demand for biomass as an energy source, Langner called the outlook for timber “very positive.”

“While we might lose forest land from encroachment and other uses, the U.S. has lots of wood,” said Langer. “There is certainly plenty of forest inventory to meet the demand for wood products that were projected.”

The report further suggested that timber harvest benefits forest health, citing a correlation between low rates of deforestation and carbon emissions and higher rates of forest product output, stating that “[e] nhancing the flow of timber revenues helps to sustain forest management and provides an economic rationale for policies favoring sustainable forests and good forestry practices.”

Langer concurred. “If you have actively managed forests—and if you look at the U.S., most of our timber is harvested on private land—you probably have much fewer problems in terms of insects, wildfire, as for instance on the public lands, which don’t get harvested very often.”

The results of the RPA report are bound to call attention to themselves, since they appear to challenge a popular view that paints natural resource users like the ranching and timber industries as primary threats to the ecosystem, while crediting recreation (and the swelling populations that flock around public lands) for creating little environmental impact but great economic benefits. While the report clearly does not imply that forage and timber removal have no ecological impacts, by shining a spotlight on the largely permanent impacts of development, it threatens to turn the perceived wisdom about the benefits of an expanding, recreation-based population on its ear. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent,