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Plum Creek forest

Improving Resilience: Forests, Wildfires and Communities

As in many countries, wildfires in the U.S. are getting worse, and overly dense forests are part of the problem. Healthy demand for wood products gives landowners a financial incentive for forest thinning and other landscape restoration efforts that reduce the fire risk. In particular, mass timber creates an opportunity for large, solid structural elements to be manufactured from relatively small-diameter trees and those affected by insects, disease, and fire. It also offers a way to strengthen rural economies. Mass timber products require sophisticated manufacturing, planning, and other plant positions—i.e., well-paying jobs in communities that often need an economic boost. So, building a modern urban wood building has a very real connection to the natural environment and success of rural towns.

Overly Dense Forests

Over the last 100 years, the historic makeup of forested landscapes in the West has changed from patchwork patterns with natural firebreaks to forests with much greater density. Combined with climate change impacts—including warmer, drier and windier climates—these overly dense forests create prime conditions for increasingly large and catastrophic wildfires.1

For more information on forest density and climate change impacts on our forests, watch the Ted Talk, Why wildfires have gotten worse—and what we can do about it by Paul Hessburg of the USDA Forest Service and University of Washington/Oregon State University.

Bethel Ridge - patchwork forest (1936) / John Marshall Photography vs. overly dense forest (2012) / National Archives Seattle, WA
Bethel Ridge – patchwork forest (1936) vs. overly dense forest (2012) / Paul Hessburg

Is North America running out of forests?

Forest area in the U.S. has been stable for more than 100 years, despite a huge increase in population. Conservatively, the U.S. was home to 76 million people in 1900 and 181 million in 1960—and there are more than 330 million people today. And yet we have about the same amount of forested land as we did at the turn of the last century. 

The volume of trees on timber land is another measure of sustainability. Timber land is the land available to timber harvesting and does not include national parks and wilderness areas, which are protected. A decrease would mean a reduction in tree stock, an increase means net growth, and the data considers all losses, including natural mortality, wildfire, and harvesting. Since 1953, the volume of timber on these lands has increased by 58%.2

Forest growth vs. removals is another key measure. The graphics below, provided by Dovetail Partners, Inc., show the growth of all U.S. forests vs. all removals, followed by forest growth on timber lands vs. removals on these lands. 

Does specifying wood contribute to deforestation?

Let’s consider the definition. Deforestation is the permanent conversion of forest land to non-forest land uses. Worldwide, agricultural expansion is the main driver of deforestation, but global deforestation issues are very different than here in the U.S. Regulation in different countries can be as different as their political structures, and the rate of deforestation in the U.S. has been virtually zero for decades.

In the photo below, you can see what was once a clearcut and is now a regenerating forest. The vegetation in the foreground likely represents 10 or so years of growth following harvest.

Wild flowers and fresh plant growth in the foreground. Medium trees grow behind that, and mature trees in a forest with rocky mountains in the background.
Photo: Sandy McKellar

In the U.S., 58% of the total forest land is privately owned. More than 10 million individual and family forest landowners own 43% of this total, and corporations, partnerships and tribes own the remaining 15%. While forest ownership in the U.S. is fairly evenly split between private and public ownership, private lands account for 89% of all timber harvested.3

What motivates these groups and individuals to keep their lands forested? Economic value is a major factor. If landowners do not see enough value in keeping the land forested, they will convert the forestland to other uses such as agricultural land, solar farms or real estate development. 

The more financial incentive there is to practice sustainable forestry, the more private landowners will invest in practices aimed at long-term forest health. For example, thinning overly-dense areas helps improve the health of remaining trees by reducing competition for water and nutrients. Healthier trees are able to cope better with drought conditions, have a better survival rate from insect and disease outbreaks, and recover better from low or moderately-intense fires.

In this way, strong markets for wood products—including mass timber, which can utilize smaller-diameter trees and trees affected by insects, disease and fire—offer a real opportunity to improve the resilience of forests and their communities.

For more information on forest ownership, management, and trends across the U.S., check out these resources:

Forest Resources of the United States, 2017 – US Forest Service

In Focus: U.S. Forest Ownership and Management – Congressional Research Service

The Impact of Wood Use on North American Forests – Think Wood

1 Changing Wildfire and Climatic Regimes in the 21st Century Western U.S., Paul Hessburg, USDA Forest Service and the University of Washington-Oregon State University

2 USDA Forest Service Facts and Historical Trends FS-1035, 2014

3 USDA Forest Service, 2019, Dovetail Partners Inc.