Forests and National Prosperity
A Reappraisal of the Forest Situation in the United States


For three centuries the American people have been hewing an empire from a heavily wooded land. Both the amount of standing timber and the forest area have been reduced. But two-thirds of the original forest land remains, which is plenty, if properly used, eventually to furnish again all the forest wealth that a prosperous Nation needs.

This remaining forest land—624 million acres—adds up to one-third of the continental United States, exclusive of Alaska. This is as big an area as all the States east of the Mississippi River with Kansas and Louisiana thrown in. Forest acreage exceeds the total farm cropland by nearly one-fifth (fig. 1). It is larger than that of the open lands used for pasturage and range.

FIGURE 1.—Land area of continental United States (excluding Alaska) by major economic uses. (click on image for a PDF version)

Mostly today's forest land is that which has escaped the plow: forest land undeveloped for other uses because of roughness, stoniness, poor soils, aridity, short growing season, or other unfavorable circumstances. It also includes worn-out or low-grade land that at one time or another has been farmed.

The great shrinkage in forest land that began with early settlement is largely the result of clearing for crops and pasture. The major competitor of forestry for use of land has always been crop agriculture, and therefore most of the reduction in forest acreage has been in the humid agricultural territory east of the Plains.

The total forest-land acreage probably will not change much from the present 624 million. It may even increase. Urban developments, and construction of highways and other facilities, are not likely to make significant reductions. Some of the better-grade lands, particularly in the East and on the Pacific Coast, will be cleared for agriculture. On the other hand, many millions of acres of the poorer cropland doubtless will revert to forest use.

Both the contributions and the problems of forestry are influenced by the close ties between forest and other agricultural land. Woodland is an integral economic feature of 3-1/4 million farms. Hundreds of thousands of farms are intermingled with nonfarm forest land. Thousands of farmers depend in whole or in part upon forest range for feeding their stock, and on forests for water supplies and other services. Many farmers earn cash in woods work. Moreover, forests help sustain industries and communities that provide the farmer with local markets for food, fiber, and livestock products.

America's forest lands are a vast domain of widely varying character and productiveness. From tidewater to timber line they include a rich variety of forest types and conditions. They are an important factor in the economy of every region except the Plains (fig. 2). East of the Plains they represent nearly half of all the land—about one-fourth of the Central region, 45 percent of the Lake, and half or more of the Middle Atlantic, the South, and New England. In the West they bulk largest in the Pacific Northwest, with more than half the area. The far-flung distribution and great variety of forest lands assure a wide sharing of their benefits and services.

FIGURE 2.—Distribution of the forest lands of the United States by regions. (click on image for a PDF version)

In studies of timber resources forest land is usually divided into two broad categories. About three-fourths, 461 million acres, is classed as commercial because it is suitable and available for growing merchantable timber (table 1). The better and more accessible forest sites are of course in this class. The less-favored one-fourth, 163 million acres, is called noncommercial. It includes, for example, the open-grown mesquite and pinyon-juniper of the Southwest, the chaparral woodland in southern California, high alpine forests, and the oak-cedar breaks of Texas and Oklahoma. It also includes 13 million acres of better sites set apart for parks and game preserves.

TABLE 1.—Distribution of forest land of the United States, by section and region, 1945

Commercial Non-commercial

North:Million acres Million acres Million acres
   New England31.130.90.2
   Middle Atlantic44.241.62.6



   South Atlantic43.842.9.9
   West Gulf51.1



   Pacific Northwest53.946.27.7
   North Rocky Mtn53.229.124.1
   South Rock Mtn.72.7



United States623.8461.0162.8

Although forest land is chiefly thought of as a source of timber, both commercial and noncommercial forest land is valuable for watershed protection, for forage crops, for wildlife habitat, and for recreation. These values, essential to our economy and way of life, in some regions outweigh that of timber supply. Most of the forest land may be used effectively for more than one or for all of these purposes at the same time. In some areas, however, natural or economic conditions or critical situations call for restriction or exclusion of certain uses. Everywhere some correlation and adjustment are necessary to assure optimum benefits. This harmonizing of uses typifies forestry that adequately serves the public interest.

The major aspects of multiple use may be briefly described as follows:

1. Watershed protection.—An essential function of forests is to safeguard watersheds and their dependent water supply, power, and navigation facilities. Forest cover helps to regulate stream flow and minimize floods. It also keeps priceless soil in place and out of streams, reservoirs, and harbors.

The forest lands of the United States are well situated for watershed protection. About three-fifths of them are in the humid area east of the Plains. Here they are widely distributed, although the heaviest concentrations are in hilly or mountainous sections embracing the headwaters of most of the major streams. In the West the wooded slopes of high mountains and plateaus receive several times more rain and snow than the inhabited valley lands. These remote forest highlands therefore supply virtually all the ground water which feeds perennial streams. Without them the valleys, and indeed most of the West, would be an arid waste.

At least three-fourths of the forest acreage has a major or moderate watershed influence, although misuse has greatly lessened the protective value of much of it. The other one-fourth—of minor influence—includes deep sands, swamps, and overflow areas, and other lands of mild topography such as occurs in the Lake States and coastal areas.

2. Grazing.—Forest lands furnish seasonal or year-round grazing for millions of domestic animals, which supply a substantial part of the Nation's meat, wool, and leather. With proper management most of the forest range can be grazed profitably and in harmony with other uses. Unregulated grazing, on the other hand, destroys the forage and seriously impairs other forest values as well.

More than half the forest land—about 350 million acres—is used for range. About 155 million acres of this is west of the Plains, where it represents nearly 70 percent of the forest land. An additional 142 million acres is in the South, chiefly in the piney woods and mountain sections. Some 53 million acres is in the North, mainly hardwood forests on farms, where grazing is undesirable.

3. Forest recreation.—Forest lands—widely used for camping, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor sports—afford a much-sought environment for enjoyment of nature and the esthetic. For many people, forests have inspirational and health-giving qualities that serve as antidote to the tensions of this fast-moving age.

Many million people seek some form of forest recreation each year. The demand is strongly upward. This continues a long-time trend—only temporarily halted by the war—which modern transportation, increased leisure, and other factors have greatly accentuated. The forests are under great pressure to meet recreation needs.

Most forest land has value for recreation. However, the usable territory is limited to about 400 million acres. Reasons for this, among others, are that the land is not accessible or its use for recreation is hampered by ownership or management policies. Except for hunting and fishing, most forest recreation is concentrated on the relatively small acreage that is reserved for scenic and recreational purposes.

4. Wildlife production.—Much of our rich wildlife heritage—fish, furbearing animals, bird life, and big game—is closely identified with forest recreation and with forests. Virtually all forest land supports some wildlife. It is one of the most valuable products on a great deal of that classed as noncommercial.

Properly managed, the wildlife resource seldom interferes with other forest uses; but in some instances grazing and timber-cutting practices require modification to assure wildlife food and habitats. Additional forest land should be reserved primarily as game refuges to provide sanctuary and to restock surrounding territory. However, in aggregate, these reserves would include only a very small part of the total forest land.

5. Timber supply.—It is to the 461 million acres of commercial forest land that America must look for timber products. Three-fourths of this is in the populous North and the South (table 1). The West, with 40 percent of the total land area, has only 23 percent of the commercial forest land. Not all of it can yet be worked economically.

In the three southern regions and the Douglas-fir subregion of the Pacific Northwest climate and other factors are especially favorable for renewal and rapid growth of forests. These regions have 45 percent of the commercial forest land.

Seventy-five percent of the commercial forest land, generally including the more productive and accessible, is privately owned (table 2). Thirty percent, 139 million acres, is in farms; [4] nonfarm ownership accounts for 206 million acres, of which about 51 million are held by the basic wood-using industries—lumber and pulp companies.

TABLE 2.—Ownership of commercial forest land, 1945

Ownership class United
North South West

   Industrial and other206.0




   National forest73.59.510.153.9
   Other Federal15.
   State and local27.1




All owners461.0170.3183.1107.6

Only a small part of private land is in medium and large holdings of 5,000 acres or more; the greater part is in small holdings—261 million acres in some 4-1/4 million properties, which average only 62 acres. These small holdings predominate in all the major sections of the United States (table 3), and from them stem many of the problems in American forestry.

TABLE 3.—Distribution of private commercial forest land, by size of holding, 1945

Small1Medium2 Large3

United States3452613351

1Less than 5,000 acres.
25,000 to 50,000 acres.
3Over 50,000 acres.

Private holdings furnish about 90 percent of the timber cut. They will continue to be our main source of timber, although the relative contribution of public lands, particularly the national forests, is increasing.

Publicly owned commercial land makes up only one-fourth of the total. Federal agencies administer 89 million acres of this land; State and local governments, 27 million (table 2). National forests are the major Federal category, with about 73 million acres, chiefly in the West. National-forest land, for the most part, is in rough, often remote back country. Much of it, bearing old-growth timber, still awaits development. The bulk of the other Federal lands are in Indian reservations, the public domain and grazing districts, and in Oregon and California revested lands. [5]

Timber growing will always be a major function of commercial forest land. Today, timber needs are in the spotlight. The Nation needs ample, dependable wood supplies in its bid for peacetime prosperity. The outlook, now and in the years ahead, depend greatly on the condition of the timber growing stock—how it is handled and improved. The forest land is ample—the challenge lies in its management.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 17-Mar-2010