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Fifth National Climate Assessment - Read the Report

Assessing the future of America’s forests and rangelands

The greatest decrease in intact forest cover 2001–2011 occurred in interior forests, which include forest cover surrounded by a 38-acre neighborhood that is at least 90 percent forested. Counties are shaded and state boundaries shown for reference; counties without color had no interior forest cover in 2001 and/or 2011. Source: USDA-Forest Service.

A report on the status of America’s forests and rangelands provides a baseline for monitoring future change and its effect on ecosystem services and livelihoods.  

Expanding populations, increased urbanization, land use change, and climate change continue to affect American forests and rangelands. Climate change and natural disturbances will alter forest and rangeland ecosystems and affect their ability to provide ecosystem services such as water quality protection, removal of pollutants from the atmosphere, and outdoor recreation. The most recent Resources Planning Act (RPA) Assessment update, released by the USDA-Forest Service in December 2016, tracks historical trends in these ecosystems and provides a look into their future, as mandated by Congress in 19741. The RPA Assessment is the product of Forest Service scientists and numerous university partners.

The report highlights key trends and projections that inform land managers and policy makers in their work to sustain important ecosystems for current and future generations. While total forest area remains relatively stable, the breakdown of large, continuous forest cover into smaller patches continued from 2001 to 2011, which can increase the risk of forest degradation from nearby human activities and alter the type and quality of ecosystem services provided (see figure). U.S. forests continue to store more carbon than they release to the atmosphere, but forests are accumulating carbon at a decreasing rate, primarily as a result of land use change and forest aging. Continued development is expected to reduce forest area in future decades. Wildlife habitats, already affected by breakdown of forest cover and conversion from native vegetation, are expected to be stressed further by the effects of climate change.

1 Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1600 (1974).

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