Working Lands – Forests

Working forests typically describe lands where forest products are actively harvested. Increasingly in the conservation community management for ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and storage, water filtration, flood control, terrestrial and aquatic habitats for flora and fauna, recreation opportunities, and even natural beauty are also being included as objectives of working forest lands. 

Characteristics of Working Forests

The United States has 766 million acres of forest land, which make up about 33 percent of the nation’s total land area. Ten percent of this land is classified as reserved and is not managed for timber harvest, which is prohibited in most reserved areas. The remainder is split between public and private ownership, with private landowners accounting for about 445 million acres. More than 10 million individual and family forest landowners own 42 percent of America’s total forest land, representing a diverse group of people who have many reasons for owning their forest land. Much of this family-owned forest is used and enjoyed for the aesthetics that forests provide, as habitat for wildlife, and as part of family legacies. Corporations, partnerships, and tribes own most of the remaining 14 percent of privately owned American forests. Many of these privately owned forests are considered “working forests,” which are actively managed for forest products, as well as to protect water quality, provide habitat, offer opportunities for recreation, and other public benefits.

Challenges Presented by Climate Change to Working Forests

Research and modeling have indicated that climate change is impacting temperature and precipitation patterns, which in turn are affecting the composition, location, health, and structure of forests across the United States.  Climate change will likely alter the frequency and intensity of forest disturbances, including wildfires, storms, insect and disease outbreaks, the occurrence of invasive species, snowpack decline in mountainous regions, and drought. In addition, the productivity of forests could be affected by changes in temperature, precipitation, and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Finally, climate change will likely worsen the problems already faced by forests from land development and air pollution. As conservation experts and long-term natural resource stewards, the land trust community is uniquely positioned to manage working forests in ways that mitigate existing and future carbon emissions and increase their resilience to impacts that can no longer be avoided.

Best Management Practices: What Land Trusts Are Doing

Land trusts are using a variety of management practices to adapt working forests to challenges associated with climate change. As an added benefit, some of these strategies may also help mitigate current and future carbon emissions. Actively managing for climate change may involve conducting habitat vulnerability assessments, using short rotations to reduce the length of time that a tree is influenced by unfavorable climate conditions, planting improved varieties developed through selection, breeding, or genetic engineering to reduce vulnerability, and thinning, weeding, managing pests, irrigating, improving drainage, and fertilizing to improve general vigor. Such actions would reduce the probability of moisture stress and secondary risks from fire, insects, and disease. For example, the Tennessee River Gorge Trust is conducting a landscape-level vulnerability assessment to determine if the health of its forests is being negatively affected by climate change. This vulnerability assessment will ultimately assist the Trust in developing a land management plan to address hot spots and proactively identify future land purchases to protect the Gorge’s forests as a whole. In California, the Bear Yuba Land Trust (formerly the Nevada County Land Trust) has partnered with local foresters to remove invasive species from the Adam Ryan Wildlife Preserve. These invasive species had aggressively outcompeted native understory vegetation and increased the risk of catastrophic wildlife damaging protected land and nearby residential neighborhoods. The Downeast Lakes Land Trust (DLLT) in Maine has worked to mitigate current and future CO2 emissions by listing a portion of its protected forest land on California’s Climate Action Reserve as an improved forest management project. DLLT partnered with Finite Carbon to complete a new timber inventory of the property and conduct an analysis to determine the potential carbon credits available. Once verified by an independent third-party, the project received compliance-eligible carbon offsets that DLLT then sold to California emitters to fund additional property acquisition and conservation.

Learn More

Agriculture Sectors: Forestry, EPA
Climate Impacts on Forests, EPA
Forest Carbon Offsets, Downeast Lakes Land Trust
– Exec. Order No. 13653, Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change
Forest Legacy Program, USDA Forest Service
National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change, USDA Forest Service
Climate Change Adaptation Plan, USDA Forest Service
U.S. Forest Resource Facts and Historical Trends, USDA Forest Service
National Report on Sustainable Forests—2010, USDA Forest Service