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You are here: Home Ecosystem Benefits Appalachian Assessments Outlook for Appalachian-Cumberland Forests: a subregional report from the Southern Forest Futures Project

Outlook for Appalachian-Cumberland Forests: a subregional report from the Southern Forest Futures Project

USDA Forest Service's Southern Research Station

This summary is taken from text in the published assessment document referenced below.


The U.S. Appalachian-Cumberland highland consists of about 62.3 million acres in portions of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia; and is divided into five sections—Blue Ridge Mountains; Interior Low Plateau; Northern Ridge and Valley; Southern Ridge and Valley; and Cumberland Plateau and Mountains. Appalachian-Cumberland forests provide a multitude of ecological services and societal benefits. This publication presents results from the Southern Forest Futures Project specific to the Appalachian-Cumberland subregion, along with associated challenges to forest management. Forecasted scenarios suggest that environmental conditions, nonnative insects and diseases, forest fragmentation, and increased societal pressure on forest land could create novel conditions that affect ecosystem structure and function. Continued changes in the societal forces that shape forest conditions, including urbanization, have the potential to affect many of the ecosystem services provided by Appalachian-Cumberland forests, including commercial and noncommercial forest products (such as timber harvesting and mushroom collecting), water quantity and quality, recreation, wildlife habitat, and biological complexity.

Albert's ViewKey Findings

The Appalachian-Cumberland highland consists of five sections: Blue Ridge Mountains, Cumberland Plateau and Mountains, Northern Ridge and Valley, Southern Ridge and Valley, and Interior Low Plateau. It encompasses about 62.3 million acres, of which 51.9 million acres are held by non-Federal entities in parts of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Detailed synthesis of the 17-chapter Southern Forest Futures Project technical report (Wear and Greis 2013) reveals numerous key findings specific to the Appalachian-Cumberland highland.

Families and individuals own two out of every three acres of private forest land in the South. The majority of family forest owners hold 1 to 9 acres. However, the majority of family forest acres are in holdings of 100 acres or more. Parcelization and fragmentation of forests are expected to continue as private owners divest their holdings in the future.

Unlike other areas of the South (such as the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, which are dominated by softwoods) where changes in forest conditions are more heavily influenced by harvesting and forest management and are thereby linked to future timber markets, Appalachian-Cumberland landscapes are dominated by hardwoods, meaning that the condition and status of forests are most heavily influenced by urbanization-driven land use changes, changes that are closely linked to population and income.

The Appalachian-Cumberland highland is forecasted to experience an increase in temperature under all projections. Relative to the 10-year historical average (1997 to 2006), however, only minor changes in average decadal precipitation are forecasted.

Although one of the smaller subregions of the South, the Appalachian-Cumberland highland contains a highly diverse suite of plant and animal communities and contains many endemic species that depend on its specific physical, climatic, and biological attributes. Urbanization-driven changes in land use coupled with loss of forest land and loss of forest connectivity near metropolitan areas could threaten the diversity and abundance of bats, salamanders, and concentrations of sensitive plant species. Furthermore, increased habitat fragmentation could make migration in response to climate and disturbances difficult. Recreational use, which is expected to increase concomitant with increased urbanization will likely be an additional pressure on rare and endemic communities.

Regardless of climate, a change from forest to urban land uses, coupled with increases in population, would increase water supply stress across the Appalachian-Cumberland highland. Because water stress is sensitive to population changes, the highest proportional increase in water stress is expected to occur where urban land uses and rates of urbanization and population growth are forecasted to be highest.

The invasion of forest communities by nonnative invasive plants is driven by habitat fragmentation, parcelization, increasing population, increasing recreation use, and forest disturbance—all of which are forecasted to increase under all projections. Climate change would likely accelerate the rate of invasion in a given area, but would also facilitate movement of specific species into new ecosystems. Loss of forest productivity, coupled with the negative effects nonnative invasive plants have on other ecosystem services, would make the control of invasive plants an important ecological as well as economic concern.

Insects and diseases are a prominent disturbance in Appalachian-Cumberland forests and will continue to influence forest structure, function, and composition during the next 50 years. Insect and disease outbreaks have the potential to all but eliminate certain species (such as eastern and Carolina hemlocks) from the ecosystem, with cascading ecological consequences.

Compared to other subregions (Piedmont, Coastal Plain, Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and the Mid-South) of the South, the Appalachian-Cumberland highland is forecasted to experience the highest growth rate of urban land use.

The forecasted area of non-Federal urban land in the Appalachian-Cumberland highland is expected to increase from the 1997 base of about 3.9 million acres to 10.6 million acres by 2060, an increase of about 172 percent under projections of high population and economic growth. Under all projections, non-Federal forest area is forecasted to decrease by 5 (1.4 million acres) to 13 percent (3.7 million acres) over the next 50 years (2010 to 2060). Loss of forest acreage, largely a consequence of urbanization-driven changes in land use, is most visible in and around current Appalachian-Cumberland population centers. Cropland and pastureland uses, which are heavily driven by timber prices, are also expected to decrease at varying degrees.

From 1998 to 2008, the forest products industry divested about three-fourths of its timber holdings. Of the States that have land in the Appalachian-Cumberland highland, most of the increases in corporate ownership have been in timber investment management organizations. Two States, Alabama and Georgia, also experienced an increase in real estate investment trusts.

Based on moderate population growth predictions, the projected growth for the South is about 60 percent. Growth rates for participation in outdoor recreation activities are expected to increase as well.

Recreation participation is expected to increase over the next 50 years. For some activities, the annual per capita participation could decrease over the next 50 years. However, even with decreasing rates of participation, the increasing population numbers would mean that the overall participation in all activities would increase. At the same time, the land base for forest recreation activities is expected to be either fairly stable (for public land), or decreasing (private lands). Demand for forest land available for recreational activities will likely continue to increase as land available for those activities decreases.

Wildfire will continue to be a threat to life and property throughout the Appalachian-Cumberland highland, and would be exacerbated by continued population growth, increased recreation pressure, and climate change. Projections of the extent of drying and increased wildfire potential vary according to the climate assumptions and season, ranging from severe drying conditions as measured by the potential drought index to little difference in dryness.

This report describes a set of likely forest futures and the management implications associated with each for the Appalachian-Cumberland highland, one of five subregions of the U.S. South. Its findings are based on the findings of the Southern Forest Futures Project, a multi-agency effort to anticipate the future and to analyze what the interaction of future changes might mean for forests and the benefits they provide in the 13 Southern States. The Futures Project investigators examined a labyrinth of driving factors, forest outcomes, and human implications to describe how the landscape of the South might change. Their findings, which are detailed in a 17 chapter technical report (Wear and Greis 2013) and synthesized in a compact summary report (Wear and Greis 2012), consist of analyses of specific forecasts and natural resource issues. Because of the great variations across southern forest ecosystems, the Futures Project also draws out findings and management implications for each of five subregions including the one addressed in this report.

Why spend several years sorting through the various facets of this complicated puzzle? The reasons are varied but they all revolve around one notion: knowing more about how the future might unfold can improve near term decisions that have long-term consequences. For example, knowing more about future land use changes and timber markets can guide investment decisions. Knowing more about the intersection of anticipated urbanization, intensive forestry, and imperiled species can guide forest conservation policy and investments. And knowing more about the potential development of fiber markets can inform and improve bioenergy policies.

Consequently, the intended users of the Futures Project findings are natural resource decision makers, professionals, and policy analysts as well as those members of society who care about natural resource sustainability. From the dozens of detailed topic-specific findings in the technical report, 10 were identified and discussed in the Futures Project summary report. They are:

  • The interactions among four primary factors will define the future forests of the South: population growth, climate change, timber markets, and invasive species.
  • Urbanization is forecasted to cause losses in forest acreage, increased carbon emissions, and stress to forest resources.
  • Southern forests could sustain higher timber production levels; however, demand is the limiting factor, and demand growth is uncertain.
  • Increased use of wood-based bioenergy could generate demands that are large enough to trigger changes in forest conditions, management, and markets.
  • A combination of factors, including population growth and climate change, has the potential to decrease water availability and degrade quality; forest conservation and management can help to mitigate these effects.
  • Nonnative invasive species (insects, pathogens, and plants) present a large but uncertain potential for ecological changes and economic losses.
  • Fire-related hazards in wildlands would be exacerbated by an extended fire season combined with obstacles to prescribed burning that would accompany increased urbanization (particularly in response to air quality and highway smoke issues).
  • Private owners continue to control forest futures, but ownership patterns are becoming less stable.
  • Threats to species of conservation concern are widespread but are especially concentrated in the Coastal Plain and the Appalachian-Cumberland highland.
  • Increasing populations would increase demand for forest-based recreation while the availability of land to meet these needs is forecasted to decline.

Preferred citation

Keyser, T., J. Malone, C. Cotton, and J. Lewis. 2014. Outlook for Appalachian-Cumberland forests: a subregional report from the Southern Forest Futures Project. General Technical Report SRS-GTR-188, USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station: 83 pp.