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The Northern Forest Futures Project

USDA Forest Service's Northern Research Station

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


This publication is part of the Northern Forest Futures Project, through which the Northern Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service examines the issues, trends, threats, and opportunities facing the forests of the northern United States. This report provides a broad overview of current conditions affecting forests in the 20-state region including Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. It draws on information from numerous sources to provide (1) an understanding of the characteristics of northern forests relative to the rest of the United States, (2) a comparative framework for understanding differences among States and how they individually and collectively contribute to the region’s forest resources, and (3) a context for interpreting projections of future forest conditions in the region. Subsequent products from the Northern Forest Futures Project will examine selected aspects of the region’s forests in greater depth and will analyze changes in forest conditions expected to occur over the next 50 years from alternative management and climate scenarios.

Ruby Mine RoadThis publication is intended for natural resource managers and planners, policy makers, State natural resource agencies, politicians, students, and those who want to know more about northern forests. It complements the 2010 State forest resource assessments, part of the State forest action plans that examine individual State forest resource conditions and issues in detail, as well as national scale documents that provide forest statistics and information. Much of the information included is organized around the Montréal Process Criteria and Indicators framework (Montréal Process Working Group 2010). Other important sections of the document summarize forest-related concerns that are unique to the northern United States and discuss characteristics associated with forest sustainability in the region.

Compared to the rest of the country, the North has a higher population density, relatively little public forest land, and many private forest owners with small forest tracts. Fifty-five percent of northern forest land belongs to nearly 5 million family forest owners. Management intensity for these forests is relatively low—only 16 percent of family forest land is covered by a written management plan.

Forest management and policies intended to meet current and future needs of people in the North require good baseline information about current conditions and trends. The information in this assessment helps put the capabilities and limitations of northern forests in perspective with the rest of the Nation. For example:


  • The North is the most heavily forested region of the United States—42 percent of the land base is forested. It is more heavily forested than the South (40 percent), the Interior West (20 percent), the Pacific Coast (37 percent), or the overall U.S. (33 percent).
  • With only 18 percent of total land area, the North supports 32 percent of the Nation’s timberland (forest land that is sufficiently productive and sufficiently accessible to produce commercial crops of wood and that is not otherwise restricted from timber harvest by policy or legislation such as designated wilderness or parks).
  • In the last century, northern forest land increased from 134 to 172 million acres while total U.S. forest land remained essentially unchanged. This trend is attributable to a historical pattern of forest harvest, land clearing, farming, farm abandonment, and urbanization that continues to exert influence today.
  • The North hosts 41 percent of the Nation’s population; 80 percent of the North’s population lives in urban areas.
  • Over the last century, population increased from 52 to 124 million people in the North. The number of forested acres per person decreased from 2.6 acres in 1907 to 1.4 acres in 2007, although total northern forest area increased. The national average is 2.5 acres of forest per person.
  • The North has large areas of wildland-urban interface (WUI) compared to the rest of the United States.
  • Urban areas in the North cover 6 percent of the land base (compared to 3 percent nationally). Northern urban areas are expanding by about 4 million acres per decade, and 37 percent of that expansion (1.5 million acres) is into forest cover.
  • Across the North, 48 percent of the water supply (280 billion cubic meters per year) originates on forest lands, compared to 53 percent nationally.
  • In the North, one acre of forest land in six (16%) is afforded some form of protected status. That is nearly identical to the national proportion, but in the North those forests are concentrated in protected categories with fewer restrictions.
  • From 1953 to 2007, the volume of standing timber in the North increased by about 140 percent (from 104 to 248 billion cubic feet), compared to about 50 percent (from 616 to 923 billion cubic feet) nationally.
  • Annual volume growth of northern forests was about 6.6 billion cubic feet for State inventory cycles completed through 2008. Annual volume growth is 1.9 times greater than the rate of harvesting and other removals, compared to 1.7 times nationally.
  • People in the North consume the equivalent of 8.8 billion cubic feet of wood products each year or about 71 cubic feet per person, most of which is harvested and processed elsewhere.
  • The region currently employs 441,000 in the forestry, logging, wood products, and pulp and paper industries—about 40 percent of all U.S. jobs for these sectors.


The way in which northern forests change in the future will affect their ability to provide products, amenities, and ecological services. Insights expected from the projections and analyses associated with the Northern Forest Futures Project should be useful in guiding policies and management practices toward a desirable future for northern forests. Forest resources and ecosystem services can improve the quality of life for people and communities without diminishing the capacity to provide similar benefits to future generations—the principle that is at the heart of forest sustainability.

Issues facing northern forests that are dealt with in this report include:

  • Insects and diseases, including invasives

  • Invasive plants

  • Management standards and practices

  • Forest area, species composition, and size structure

  • Stewardship and forest management

  • Wildlife habitat and biodiversity

  • Forest fragmentation and parcelization

  • Water

  • Wood products harvesting, processing, consumption, and trade

  • Environmental literacy

  • Outdoor recreation

  • Biomass and bioenergy

The 12 issues described above were identified in published reports as major concerns about northern forests (Dietzman et al. 2011). Some are longstanding. They are all complex issues, and many are integrally linked to broader societal concerns about the economy, renewable energy, and climate change. Some issues are inherently threatening, such as invasive plants, insects, and diseases. Others are multifaceted and include both threats and opportunities, such as the interaction of wood products and wood energy production with biodiversity, fragmentation, and carbon sequestration. These issues are a primary motivation for preparing this assessment of northern forest conditions.

Preferred citation

Shifley, S. R., F. X. Aguilar, N. Song, S. I. Stewart, D. J. Nowak, D. D. Gormanson, W. K. Moser, S. Wormstead, and E. J. Greenfield. 2012. Forests of the Northern United States. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-90., U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station, Newtown Square, PA.