Updates & Blog

The Five Biggest Threats to U.S. Southern Forests… And How To Combat Them

Rob Farrell
State Forester
Virginia Department of Forestry
Tight Shot of pine tree with green caution tap around it.

People often perceive forests as static landscapes – to be observed without interaction. But forests are active, dynamic forces of nature, constantly engaged in growth, carbon storage, water and air filtration, oxygen production, erosion prevention and support of diverse habitats across the South. They also provide for other human needs such as medicine, food, economic sustenance and timber goods (building materials, hygiene products, etc.), as well as mental and physical wellness. Whether you’re a forest owner who cultivates, harvests and regrows timber, a casual forest lover who enjoys visiting your local state forest on the weekend, or someone who has only ever seen trees within an urban cityscape, the simple fact remains that we can all benefit from forest products and the abundant ecosystem services provided by healthy, well-managed forests.

In the southern United States, there are more than 245 million acres of forestland, representing some of the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the world. However, regional projections predict we will lose 23 million southern forest acres in less than 40 years. So, how can we stop forest loss in the South? For better or worse, humans will always influence the natural world around us and, as such, we hold the key and responsibility to conserve and protect it. Below, I’ve outlined the five biggest threats to southern forests, along with what state forestry agencies and partners are doing to address them – and some tips for how you can help, too. The Southern Group of State Foresters (SGSF) invites you to join our collective effort to conserve, protect and enhance southern forests for today, tomorrow and beyond. After all, what’s good for the forest, is good for everyone.

1. Wildfires

You may be surprised to note that the South sees more wildfires per year than any region in the United States, with an average 68,000 wildfires annually. Southerners know wildfires are inevitable – It’s not a question of if, but when. Taking action to offset wildfire’s destructive potential is a must, but mitigation is only a portion of the overall work needed. By actively and continuously focusing on a combination of wildfire mitigation, prevention and emergency response, we can better protect our precious forest resources – not to mention lives, homes, buildings and communities.

What We’re Doing:

  • Fuel Reduction: The South is known for being a leader in safe and strategic application of prescribed fire, or “good fire.” Prescribed fire mimics nature by introducing low-intensity fires to reduce buildup of flammable vegetation and overgrowth (fuel for fire). Other fuel reduction techniques include thinning and mulching. By applying these methods recurringly, especially in areas of high wildfire risk, eventual wildfires will be smaller, easier to control and less dangerous.
  • Collaboration and Training: The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy) was adopted in the South and across the nation to address the complexities of today’s wildfire management issues. The Cohesive Strategy is a strategic push to work collaboratively among multi-jurisdictional stakeholders to restore and maintain landscapes, ensure communities are ready for wildfire and build partnerships to improve wildfire response. We also provide cross-jurisdictional and interagency training opportunities in wildfire response, prescribed fire application and other related techniques.
  • Community Outreach: Southern state forestry agency personnel conduct community outreach about wildfire prevention and risk reduction. This can include educational Smokey Bear programs for children, safe burning courses for landowners, and neighborhood-focused wildfire mitigation and prevention programs for high-risk communities.
  • Advocacy: SGSF works with federal and state partners to advocate for policy, funding and programs to support wildfire prevention, mitigation and response, such as reinvestment in hazardous fuels management, providing wildland firefighting resources in at-risk communities, and other activities that promote wildfire risk reduction.

What You Can Do:

  • Practice care with fire and ignition sources outdoors.
  • Maintain a wildfire-resilient landscape around your home and property.
  • Voice your support for the use of prescribed fire, as well as funding for state wildfire prevention, mitigation and response programs.
  • If you are a forest landowner, adopt a forest management plan that includes wildfire mitigation and response strategies. Contact your state’s forestry agency for assistance.

2. Market availability

In the South, 86% of all forested land is owned by private landowners, many of whom manage their lands as working forests – using sustainable management practices to grow, harvest, sell and regrow timber. With so much of the south’s forestland in private ownership, we rely on current, new and emerging forest product markets to maintain forest profitability, so that landowners can afford to keep their working forests intact and growing.

Photo: National Association of State Foresters/Arkansas Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division

What We’re Doing:

  • Landowner Assistance: State forestry agencies work directly with forest owners, helping them navigate available forest product markets while also managing for sustainability. Additionally, in response to growing demand for certified-sustainable forest products, we are helping landowners navigate whether participation in certification programs could help to overcome market barriers.
  • Market and Supply Analysis: Southern state forestry agencies monitor and update data related to the amount of timberland, standing timber, growth and removals. This data is publicly available in the Southern Timber Supply Analysis Application and displays areas that have abundant and sustainable supplies of forest resources. The application helps landowners, foresters, loggers, mills, business investors and other industry professionals make more informed decisions.
  • Advocacy: SGSF communicates with policymakers to highlight the key connection between strong, diverse markets and the sustainability of southern forests. We also advocate for the removal of barriers to markets and the development of new and emerging markets, such as mass timber. This also includes recognizing the role of biomass in carbon and climate policymaking both nationally and internationally.

What You Can Do:

  • When available, opt for sustainable products made from trees.
  • If you’re planning to build, consider asking your contractor about incorporating mass timber or other sturdy construction materials made from wood.
  • If you are a forest landowner, contact your state’s forestry agency for help overcoming market barriers and assessing sustainable forest certification options.
  • Voice your support for state and federal policies and programs that help landowners keep working forests intact.
  • Ask for Wood. When your local government discusses new building construction, encourage them to use wood.

3. Development & Land Conversion

As populations grow and communities continue to expand beyond city centers, the pressure to permanently clear-cut forests for new construction, development and other non-forest uses is mounting. Stark forest loss predictions also represent serious threats to future air and water quality, as well as overall quality of human life. In response, we must work together with our forest landowner base to conserve forestlands along with their crucial benefits.

What We’re Doing:

  • Conservation Programs: State forestry agencies help private landowners access forest conservation opportunities, such as the Forest Legacy Program, which  help landowners protect private forestlands via conservation easements or land purchases. Conservation easements allow landowners to maintain rights to manage their forests for timber, as well as other personal and financial benefits, while ensuring the land remains forested into the future. The benefits of conservation easements can also extend to heirs, as reduced estate taxes can make it easier and more affordable to keep the land in the family.
  • Technical Assistance: Some landowners, especially if they are new to land ownership, need help identifying and accomplishing their land management goals. State forestry agencies help landowners develop achievable forest management plans and connect them with support resources. Many state agencies offer this service at little to no cost.
  • Advocacy: In addition to advocating for easier access to forest markets, SGSF works to make sure the benefits of programs like the Forest Legacy ProgramForest Stewardship ProgramConservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program are recognized in policy-making venues. Additionally, SGSF advocates for federal tax provisions that encourage reforestation and ongoing private investment in forest management, as well as supporting Heirs Property work to address forestland retention in rural African American communities.

What You Can Do:

  • Voice your support for programs that allow landowners to maintain their forestlands.
  • Support forest product markets by purchasing sustainably sourced goods that come from trees.
  • If you are a landowner, contact your state’s forestry agency to find out what you can do to ensure your lands are kept forested for generations to come.
  • Support and get involved with the Keeping Forests initiative.

4. Pests, diseases & Invasives

The spread of forest pests, diseases and invasive species persistently threatens the health and survival of southern forests. As demonstrated by the dramatic and historical demise of the American chestnut and American elm, we know that forest health threats must be taken seriously. Some current threats include pests like the southern pine beetlehemlock woolly adelgid and emerald ash borer, pathogens like laurel wilt disease, and invasive plant species like cogongrass and Chinese tallowtree. Unchecked, these and other major forest health issues could wipe out entire species across the South, altering our landscape forever and creating a domino effect of negative economic, ecological, cultural and aesthetic impacts.

Emerald Ash Borer

What We’re Doing:

  • Technical Assistance & Education: State forestry agencies work directly with private landowners to educate them about ongoing and evolving forest health threats, while helping them develop plans to manage for and prevent outbreaks. By engaging with landowners, we are better equipped to find and stop threats before they spread.
  • Scientific Research and Application: Careful study of causes, pathogen genetic variability, host range, epidemiology and other forest health research is necessary for the development of effective forest health strategies. State forestry agencies work closely with the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station and other partners to monitor, research and apply strategies that prevent, detect, suppress and manage forest health threats in the South.
  • Advocacy: SGSF interfaces with lawmakers and decision makers to ensure that policy decisions are based on sound forest science. We hope to ensure robust funding and efficient program delivery to address forest health threats across the South, including invasive species, pests and pathogens.

What You Can Do:

  • Research plants before purchasing to avoid introducing invasive plants into nearby forests and natural areas.
  • If you regularly operate equipment outdoors (landscape professionals, loggers, heavy equipment operators), always clean your equipment when moving from one site to the next.
  • Buy firewood local to where you are going to burn it.
  • Contact a local state forestry agency to find out how you can help spot forest pests, diseases and invasive species.
  • If you are a forest landowner, incorporate forest health management measures into your forest management plan. Contact a local state forestry agency for assistance.

5. Climate change

Climate change is one of the biggest, most talked about global issues of today. Changes in temperature, rainfall and weather patterns, caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions, disrupt the natural balance of forest ecosystems. This imbalance can intensify common forest threats like those mentioned above, creating conditions ripe for forest loss, wildfires, forest pests, tree diseases and invasive species takeover. Ironically, however, healthy working forests are their own solution to the problem. Although we can never make carbon completely disappear, transforming trees into products provides a way to lock carbon away for many years, while making way for new forest growth to continue the carbon absorption process. In fact, private working forests and the products made from them account for 84% of all carbon stored by forests. The more forests we can keep intact and healthy, the better equipped we are to combat the broad impacts of climate change, including those to the forests themselves.

What We’re Doing & What You Can Do:

  • All of the Above: When we all take steps to support the conservation, protection and enhancement of forests in the South, we are actively supporting climate solutions for humanity and the world. Keeping forests intact and strong, now and into the future, helps keep our climate healthy while providing for clean air and water, vibrant habitats and community wellness.
Photo: National Association of State Foresters/Virginia Department of Forestry