Millions of Acres of Southern Forest Lost to Mining and Asphalt

As Forests Are Destroyed, a Defense Against Climate Change Vanishes

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By John Talberth
and Logan Yonavjak, WRI

Four months after the Copenhagen Accord, the interest and discussions about reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries — colloquially known as REDD-plus — continues.

Clearly, helping developing countries implement comprehensive initiatives to protect their forests is a sensible investment; however, new satellite mapping technologies — such as those highlighted on, the World Resources Institute’s new web-based mapping portal — show that deforestation and forest degradation occurs in the United States, as well.

As the United States considers funding to conserve forests in the tropics, it is equally imperative that we take a look at what is happening in our own backyard and consider the role that our forests can serve in reducing the impacts of climate change.

Deforestation in the United States

The United States is losing significant forest cover to suburbanization, mining and infrastructure development. Most U.S. forests have been logged and some are on their second or third rounds of logging. Forests can naturally regenerate, but not if they are paved over, which is why this round of deforestation is so disconcerting.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, approximately 12 million acres of southern forests will be lost to suburbia between 1992 and 2020. Another 19 million acres will be lost by 2040 unless there are changes in the pattern of development that now favors low density housing, strip malls and exurban road construction near cities like Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and Richmond.

Forests and Climate Change

By losing forest, the United States also loses one of its best defenses against climate change. According to Forest Service carbon accounting tools, the 21 million acres of forests that are expected to be lost to sprawl in the next 20 years sequester roughly 32 million tons of carbon per year. Furthermore, when cleared for development, carbon stored in these forests is also lost, amounting to approximately 8 million tons per year.

Taken together, lost carbon sequestration capacity and emissions from clearing will represent a carbon footprint of at least 40 million tons per year by 2030. To put this into context, this amount is roughly 13% of the U.S. emissions reduction target President Obama announced at Copenhagen.

Creating New Incentives to Reduce Deforestation

There are a number of options for reducing deforestation pressure in the United States.

One approach is to understand how public infrastructure investments contribute to the problem. Multi-billion dollar highway projects that induce sprawl and deforestation on the fringes of our urban areas provide an example. Take Birmingham, Ala., one of the hotspots of forest loss in the South. Construction of the Northern Beltline highway, a $3.4 billion public investment, is set to begin soon and will literally clear the way for commercial and residential development on the few big tracts of forest left near the city. Can these investments be redirected to encourage smart growth instead?

We can also create incentives for private forest landowners, who own 87% of southern forest acreage, to keep their land rather than sell to developers.

Creating markets for ecosystem services can provide new income opportunities to forest landowners in addition to or in lieu of timber. For example, water quality markets make it possible for downstream water utilities to pay upstream forestland owners to keep their forests in a well managed state.

Offsets are yet another approach. Consumers are increasingly demanding that the companies they do business with offset the environmental impacts of their operations by protecting land. These voluntary offset markets, such as Wal-Mart’s Acres for America program, make it possible for forestland owners to receive financial support to maintain healthy forest cover on their lands.

As the United States refines its role in REDD-plus in the coming months, a more complete exploration of the opportunities for reducing deforestation in the United States is warranted. Addressing U.S. deforestation will help meet our Copenhagen targets and strengthen the U.S. economy in our forest dependent communities.

Innovative solutions are already on the table such as markets for carbon offsets, water quality credits, and habitat credits. It’s time to take a hard look at how to fully develop these efforts and then scale them up before millions more acres are permanently lost to development.

(Republished with permission of WRI)


See also:

Putting a Value on Preserving Forests, Not Clearing Them

Google, Cisco Offer Answers to REDD’s Verification Question

Deforestation Deal, Copenhagen’s Supposed Savior, Hits New Low as Targets Dropped

(Photo: brendanplant/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


John Talberth is senior economist with the People and Ecosystem Program, providing economic analysis for its Southern Forests for the Future, Mainstreaming Ecosystem Services, and Chesapeake Bay projects. Logan Yonavjak is a research analyst on the Southern Forests for the Future project.