The Weird Way We Look At Forests

We have never really been able to look at trees as the agricultural crop that they are.  I am reminded of this fact from this forest watch site at Google, which purports to track deforestation around the world.

I have no problem calling activity in the Amazon where old growth is logged out in a tragedy of the commons "deforestation".  But the map is odd to me in the Southeast US.  While there likely is some reduction in forested lands around urban areas, overall the US has actually been increasing its forest cover since the early 1900's.  But the Google map of the southeast shows lots of forest "loss".  It also shows about as much forest "gain". (red is loss, blue is gain, click to enlarge)

click to enlarge

Why is that?

Of late, I have spent a lot of time in the southeast and what I have observed are a lot of private forest lands that are harvested for timber.  One plot is harvested one year, and fast growing trees are replanted.  Then the next year a neighboring plot is harvest, etc, until it all starts over with the first plot.  In a large sense this is no different than any other kind of farming, just with a 15 year growing season instead of a one-summer season.

Calling harvested lands in this area "forest loss" and new growth "forest gain" makes about as much sense as calling land held fallow for a season in Iowa as "corn loss" and newly planted land as "corn gain."  There is a difference  between farming trees and strip-mining them that gets lost in this data.


  1. Brian:

    Somebody needs to do a presentation on the decornation of Nebraska this summer.

  2. Slow:

    How does loss/gain relate to current population? In my mind, it doesn't. It only says there to be less or more, starting point unknown. A more interesting visualization would be of the delta in the species. The shame would be in replanting "fast" growing trees - unless you're farming.

  3. DirtyJobsGuy:

    I heard a talk by a retired USFS forester about the White Mtns in New Hampshire. He noted how the national forest was started before WWI at the urging of downstream mill owners who had floods and droughts due to the near total logging of the NH forests. New England is great timberland but crappy farm land. Greens like to think that every largish tree is old growth, my house in CT was farmland in 1950 and is all big white pines today. It's almost jungle like in how fast they grow.

  4. sch:

    Trees in the SE are grown in 20-40 year cycles, depending on use: Dense over plantings will result in plots of pines that lose their lower branches fairly early improving lumber
    quality when harvested at the 30-40yr point. Thinning occurs at the 15-25 year point and resultant logs in the 5-9" range are pulped out. We were in the Olympic peninsula area
    in Sept and there were lots of signs indicated 'this forest' was last harvested in 1965, 1980 or 1995 etc and the replanted. Resulting trees seemed to be growing about as fast
    as they do in the SE, ie 12-14" DBH at 25-35 years of age, in monocultures. Though forests seem more homogenous in the NW compared to the Smokies for example or anywhere
    in the SE not planted in monoculture pine.

  5. FelineCannonball:

    Sort of fun data. You can see the tracks of tornadoes in some of these remote sensing plots.

    Actual biologists, ecologists, farmers, groundwater users, people in flood zones don't get particularly excited about this kind of data unless it's put in context with information on the ground. The colors aren't "good" and "bad." See juniper expansion in parts of Texas (bad for cattle, bad for springs, bad for fish, bad for rural ground water users). Grasslands and meadows are actually valuable to a lot of users all over the country and a forest is not a forest is not a forest anywhere. What you are looking at is raw data, not value.

  6. Jess1:

    Reason 1,916 why I take every single "Big Data" report w/a very large grain of the proverbial salt. This one's funny, though. We own a few hundred acres in two different states, so a quick check, and - no surprise, both locations show "loss".
    Except that if I were to show you photos of the 70s vs. today, you'd say "What loss" - as most of the acreage was abandoned low grade farmland (first cleared in the late 19th Century) w/a few (under 100) scrub fruit trees. We've planted over 5,000 trees (a variety of species and ZERO timbering) over the years, so to see this as a "loss" is, well, bizarre.

  7. mahtso:

    As established, the National Forests were, in essence, to be managed for the purposes of producing timber and water supplies. Much later a multiple use approach was adopted into law.

  8. Matthew Slyfield:

    For that you would need an accurate census of each tree species, something that doesn't exist.

  9. Howard Luken:

    Forget the trees. What is that gigantic semi-circular artifact Smack dab in the middle of the map? Some ancient Crater? A portal to another dimension? A reflection of the crescent moon?

  10. marque2:

    I can imagine the government paying census folk to knock on our doors and ask us about our trees.

  11. obloodyhell:

    The actual problem is that the Greens suffer from massive brain loss...

  12. obloodyhell:

    That's a shovel ready job all right. I can already smell the bovine excreta that would be getting shoveled all over the place.

  13. JKB:

    A lot of the tree crop land is being taken out of service. Sold off. For a while the land conservancies were picking it up. My brother oversaw a deal that added land in the watershed to a national park. The rest went to a bear reserve. During the housing bubble, the conservancies couldn't compete. But it is coming back now.

  14. skhpcola:

    I wondered the same thing...that's a fairly obvious deviation in the data.

  15. FelineCannonball:

    It's basically the underlying geology. Younger Cretaceous shales and carbonates lap up and wrap around the southern flank of the Appalachians. These include some black shales that don't hold moisture well and naturally were short grass prairie -- thus no forest. Since then we figured out it's a great place to grow cotton if you irrigate it enough with well water. It now has a lot of farm land or fallow farm land and is tree free for this reason.

    It's the green belt on this geological map (Selma and Tuscaloosa Groups):

    It's also known as the so called "black belt" of Alabama (black soil more so than black slaves, but it had both):

  16. marque2:

    Why are non-profits allowed to not pay property taxes?

  17. FelineCannonball:

    Land conservancies pay property taxes on a reduced assessment if there is an conservation easement or change in zoning, but they do pay property taxes. They don't require a lot of county services though so I'm not sure how the reduced assessment actually impacts government funding.

    It's the people with 8 kids in a little house who are net negative for school district funding.

  18. rst1317:

    From the source, it seems they're just measuring what it was in 2000 compared to 2012.

    "Tree cover loss is defined as “stand replacement disturbance,” or the complete removal of tree cover canopy at the Landsat pixel scale. Tree cover loss may indicate a number of potential activities, such as timber harvesting, fires or disease, the conversion of natural forest to other land uses, or the crop rotations cycle of tree plantations. Tree cover gain was defined as the inverse of loss, or the establishment of tree canopy in an area that previously had no tree cover."

  19. bigmaq1980:

    Thought it was a secret government program now showing the start of a giant "O' as a tribute to Obama (smack dab in the middle of "fly over country")...since he won't get to be on Rushmore.

    But that would be a little too paranoid and sarcastic to think so, wouldn't it? Not like this POTUS thinks that highly of himself to do something so grandiose, right?

  20. bigmaq1980:

    Great point.

    On a vacation trip we hit Harpers Ferry. It was one of two National Armory and Arsenal sites up to the Civil War (when it was destroyed by the Confederates), and was an important industrial center in that age.

    What struck us was one particular display that had photos of the area around the time of the Civil War which also had an explanation that wood was a major source of fuel. Standing and looking at the same view at that moment, one would hardly believe that the forest as we saw it then was not anything like what showed in those photos. Clearly it had recovered since then - don't know if it was due to plantings (doubtful), but given the mountainous geography, probably most was natural.

    We tend to think, as encouraged by the green media/culture, that all "loss" is permanent and that the trees we see are all "old growth". It seems much more nuanced than their simple view.