One-third of the United States is forested; the U.S. Forest Service maintains 25 percent of U.S. forests and 56 percent is privately owned. Forests are responsible for half of the United States’ drinking water and provide recreation, wildlife habitat, and products such as wood, pulp and paper. The forest products sector supports 1 million direct jobs and 6 percent of the total manufacturing output of the United States.

Unfortunately, U.S. forests, so important to both our economy and environment, are under increasing threat from a combination of climate change, development, pests, and diseases.

Despite the urgent need to protect and restore forests, two recent reports point to a lack of investment in forest restoration and forest product innovation in the United States. The end result is slow, limited progress on federal and private efforts to make forests healthier and more productive. Healthy forests are better adapted to withstand climate change and wildfires, and they provide jobs in recreation and the forest products sector.

In their report, Restoring Our Investment in America’s Forests, the Center for American Progress (CAP) focuses on the restoration of federal forests. According to CAP, three primary issues need to be addressed to restore health to the national forest system:

  • Fix the wildfire budget issue – currently wildfire suppression accounts for over half of the Forest Service’s budget, leaving scant dollars for important restoration work,
  • Foster state, utility, and business partnerships to collectively invest in national forests, and,
  • Expand grants to empower local communities to tackle forest restoration.

CAP reports that restoring 2 million acres of national forests would create more than 40,000 jobs, mostly in rural communities, to carry out replanting, mechanical thinning, and prescribed burning to rehabilitate national forests to their natural state. They also give examples of several restoration projects already underway, such as the 1 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona, which is restoring native ponderosa pine forest. The main vehicle identified by CAP for conducting forest restoration is the 2018 Farm Bill.

On the private forestry side, a recent Blue Ribbon panel, commissioned by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, examined the role that market development plays in maintaining healthy state and local forests. While the U.S. manufacturing sector reinvests an average of 3.4 percent of sales into research and development, the report finds that low investment by the wood products sector – at just 0.6 percent – means the domestic forest products industry is not keeping up with global competitors.

New developments in products – from building materials to chemicals and fuels derived from wood – can help drive economic development in rural areas and ensure forests continue providing clean drinking water, air, recreation, and carbon sequestration. To take just one example, Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), a structural building material made from lumber, will likely be a $2 billion dollar industry by 2025.

But, according to the Blue Ribbon Commission, if the erosion of federal and private research is not reversed, it will be impossible for the United States forestry sector to stay competitive against forestry behemoths such as Canada, Finland, and other European Union countries.

In order to strengthen forestry R&D in the United States, the report's recommendations include:

  • Greater coordination between the Forest Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Department of Energy, and National Science Foundation on forestry-related research and development,
  • Strengthening the Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory, the only federal repository for forest products R&D,
  • Develop markets for environmental services provided by forests,
  • Maintain critical baseline information gathering on forests, including forest inventory and forest health research, and,
  • Develop a national research plan for the forest sector.

Overall, federal and private funding for forest research has declined precipitously since the mid 20th century. In 1962, the federal investment was about $1.1 billion in today’s dollars. Today, the investment is about $700 million per year. With the 2018 Farm Bill up for reauthorization, the time is ripe to discuss the importance of forests.


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