The Scale of Deforestation in the US

Although deforestation is an ongoing environmental issue which receives a lot of media and internet coverage, many people don’t realize that it is happening on their doorstep. The enormous losses of forest in Asia and South America are well publicized, but unfortunately, a similar thing happens in the United States of America. Most deforestation in the USA is legal, but that doesn’t mean that it is right!

The debate around deforestation in the USA is mainly centered on the logging industry, which harvests timber from forests across the country. The United States is the world’s biggest timber producer. They contribute almost a quarter of the world’s total wood and wood products but consume nearly as much. While most of this logging is done in a (supposedly) sustainable and renewable manner, environmentalists argue that there is still significant damage being done to the surrounding ecosystems and environment.

In the past, a lot more of the USA was covered by forest than today. It is estimated that before European settlement, around 46% of the country was covered. Through heavy logging in the first few centuries of colonization, this number was reduced to about 33% by 1907. Since 1907, the area of forest cover has remained relatively constant, exhibiting a slight downward trend.

Historical deforestation affected the East of the country a lot more than the West because it is more heavily settled and has better soils and climate for agriculture. It is estimated that by the end of the 19th century, only half of the original forest cover remained. This led to the extinction of many species, especially birds. Habitat loss due to deforestation has been cited as one of the significant factors contributing to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, the ivory-billed woodpecker, and Bachman’s warbler².

Over the past few decades, the area of forest cover in the USA has remained relatively constant. According to some studies, a small amount of deforestation has occurred, while others say that reforestation is happening very slowly.

Here are some relevant numbers according to Mongabay: between 1990 and 2010, the States lost 384,350 hectares of natural forest cover a year (on average). Only 25% of the current forest cover is primary forest, while 67% is naturally regenerated and 8% is planted. The amount of planted forest has risen significantly (from 18 million hectares to 25.4 million hectares) in the past 20 years. Every year around 4 million hectares of timber is harvested, but the majority of this is regenerated through various reforestation methods.

According to many recent studies, the rate of natural deforestation will probably increase over the coming decades. With climate change, specific tree pests and diseases are becoming more widespread and destructive, and are causing extensive damage throughout the country.