Forest coverage steady; changes in tree species

The amount of forests covering Tennessee has held steady for decades, but declines have occurred in some species and in the amount of younger tracts of trees.

That's according to the latest report issued by the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Division of Forestry. The report, which looked at statewide forest conditions from 1999 to 2004, also cites a decline in the number of wood products jobs in that period.

The Forestry Inventory and Analysis program has surveyed Tennessee at five- to seven-year intervals since 1950. The latest report was delayed because of the time needed to analyze the large quantity of data.

The report found 52 percent of Tennessee's land base to be in forests - essentially the same percentage that has covered the state since 1961.

"A lot of people think we're losing forests because all they see is development along the man-made interstates," said Chris Oswalt, forester for the U.S. Forest Service's Southern Research Station. "You get a little farther from the travel corridors, and these changes aren't taking place. In West Tennessee, we're actually seeing agricultural lands reverting back to forests."

As of the 2004 report, Tennessee had about 13.78 million acres (52 percent) in forests. The report says the decades-long plateau in the amount of statewide forests could soon start to drop because of urban sprawl, forest fragmentation and land-use changes.

Tennessee's next forest report is due in late 2010 or early 2011.

One piece of troubling news in the report was that 12 of the 18 species of oak trees in Tennessee showed overall declines from 1999 to 2004. In addition to their commercial lumber value, oaks also produce acorns that are an important food source for a wide variety of wildlife species.

And, as the oaks declined in the report period, lesser mast-producing species like yellow poplar, sugar maple and red maple increased significantly.

Oswalt said this general lack of high-quality oak regeneration is occurring throughout the eastern U.S., not just in Tennessee, and that researchers at the University of Tennessee and other institutions are studying the problem.

"It's alarming because oaks are such an important species," Oswalt said. "There are numerous reasons why this could be happening. Oaks don't perform well under dense canopy. Removing fire from the landscape might have an impact. We also don't have the amount of land clearing that occurred in the past that helped create the oak forest we enjoy today."

The report shows that early successional forests - forests in the early developmental stages - declined in Tennessee over the past 40-plus years. In early 1971, early successional forests accounted for 35 percent of all forest lands. In 2004, they made up only 12 percent of the forest.

Fifty-two percent of all the forest plots examined in the study harbored some type of non-native, invasive plant species.

The study showed that 85 percent of Tennessee's forests are in private ownership - timber companies as well as private individuals. Of those, 96 percent were estimated to be in parcels of less than 100 acres.

"The private tracts are getting smaller and smaller," Oswalt said. "As individuals pass their land down through the family, that property may be broken up into three or four parcels. This presents another layer of complexity forest managers have to take into account and deal with."

The study also found that Tennessee lost close to 7,000 wood products jobs from 1999 to 2004, translating into a payroll decline of more than $48 million. At the same time, the value of shipments from Tennessee increased 5 percent from $6.8 billion in 1999 to $7.2 billion in 2004.