The Forest Service estimates that the US once held over a billion acres of old-growth forest in the lower 48. Now, less than 10 percent of old-growth forest remains in the continental US, and most of it is concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, where the terrain is simply too difficult to traverse with logging equipment. Wetland forests — the swamps, bayous, pocosins, and coastal forests of the South — have not fared much better. Some estimate that over 80 percent of wetland forests have disappeared since colonial times: dammed, ditched, and drained for agriculture, timber harvest, commercial and residential development, and pine plantations.
Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance
The impacts of forest loss are felt most strongly in wetland forests. These forests — any forest that is submerged for part of the year — don’t look like much, but they do the dirty work for us. Scientific studies have shown that wetland forests provide twice the value of upland pine forests in many categories of ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, pollution treatment, flood control, and water supply for downstream communities. They also provide a significant increase in carbon sequestration.
Perhaps most importantly, our recent research, released today on World Wetlands Day, shows that a wetland forest left standing is worth 15 times more than one cut for timber. How’s that for a return on investment? All they ask in return is that we let them stay right where they are. But wetland forests, much like other forests in the South, are being destroyed to serve the forest products market. With every tree lost, we lose out on valuable ecosystem services like clean water, carbon sequestration, and protection from natural disasters.
The ongoing degradation of wetland forests in the region fits into the larger pattern of commercializing our southern forests. The US South only has about 2 percent of the world’s forest cover, but regularly produces over a fifth of its forest products. All said and done, forests in the South are being logged at a rate four times that of South American rainforests.
Image courtesy of Dogwood Alliance
Much noise is made — and rightfully so — about the destruction of primary forest in Malaysia and Borneo to make way for palm oil plantations, but we often turn a blind eye to our own backyard. Since 1953, pine plantations have been steadily increasing by over six hundred thousand acres annually in the US South, often at the expense of natural forest. Pine plantations are now estimated to be over 42 million acres, nearly 20 percent of the total forested land in the region.
If we put all of the pine plantations in one Southern state, they would take up 99.8 percent of Florida. Although pine plantations produce a lot of timber, they fail to provide even one tenth of the valuable and essential ecosystem services that wetland forests provide.
Conversion to pine plantation is especially egregious when it occurs in Southern wetland forests. Wetland forests are naturally difficult to traverse with logging equipment. They frequently contain trees considered to be “low quality” or “waste wood” by forest products companies. The twisted, knotted and fluted trunk trees are considered suitable only for chips, pellets, or pulp markets. One report estimates that the 2010 market value for wetland forest ecosystem services in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley was only about $28 per acre.
In conclusion, wetland forests are nearly worthless for timber, but immensely valuable for their ecosystem services. Yet according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, between 2004-2009, over 240,000 acres of forested wetland were lost to forestry activities. Why are we grateful for pennies on the dollar for our wetland forest timber, when we could be getting the full value (15 times more) by leaving them be? It simply doesn’t make economic sense.
Read the report: Treasures of the South: The True Value of Wetland Forests