Forests are an important part of our ecosystems. They provide timber, store carbon, clean water, purify air, and reduce the effects of drought and floods. In the U.S., forests cover 766 million acres of land. The greatest concentrations of forests are in the South and Northeast, but Alaska has the largest total forest area of any state.
Ownership and governance
Like all land, forests can be publicly or privately owned. Private individuals or organizations, such as corporations, non-profits, and tribes own 58% of forests. The remaining 42% are publicly owned by federal, state, and local governments.
Forests on federal land are governed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Forests on tribal lands are governed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), tribes themselves, or a combination of both.
U.S. Forest Service
The U.S. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, manages 191 million acres of national forests across the country. Congress or the Executive Branch has designated 65% of that land for non-timber use because it is protected as wilderness, set aside for other purposes, or cannot be harvested because of environmental conditions. Timber is harvested on some land and companies harvest about 0.5% of trees a year. The Forest Service has a map of all national forests. Today, the Forest Service uses the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to add to national forest lands by purchasing land, water, and wetlands for public benefit.
Extensive planning goes into managing the national forests. The Forest Service’s Citizen’s Guide to National Forest Planning details the planning process and its major phases (PDF).
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
BLM manages 65 million acres of forests and woodlands across 12 western states and Alaska. The majority of timber production on BLM land occurs on the 2.4 million acres of Oregon and California and Coos Bay Wagon Road lands in Oregon.
BLM also manages public domain lands
Tribal lands include 18.2 million acres of trust forest acres. The Forest Service’s Tribal Relations site provides information on their work with tribes and an interactive map of tribal trust lands and tribal lands ceded as part of a treaty. To learn more about extraction on tribal lands and the trust responsibility of the federal government, read about tribal ownership.
BIA’s Division of Forestry and Wildland Fire Management manages trust forest resources. The Division is a cooperative effort between the Department of the Interior (DOI), BIA, and the Office of the Deputy Director of Trust Services.
Lands that can sustainably produce 20 cubic feet per acre of commercial wood products are called timberlands. In the U.S., 68% of forests are timberlands. The rest are classified as low-productivity or legally protected forests. The Forest Service has more information about the global position of the U.S. in timber production (PDF).
A number of factors increase demand for timber including: new housing construction, total industrial production, private nonresidential construction, and durable consumer goods production.
Timber production is defined and measured in a few ways: shape (roundwood), intended purpose (industrial or fuelwood), or type of tree (softwood or hardwood). Roundwood is one of the most general measures of production and refers to the length of cut tree with a round cross-section, like a log. The U.S. has led in global industrial roundwood production since the 1960s.
Most timber production occurs on private forests. More than 90% of wood and paper products produced in the U.S. comes from private forests. The majority of federal timber production occurs in the national forests and is managed by the Forest Service. National forests provide less than 2% of wood and paper products.
Forests also produce non-timber products. According to the Forest Service, there are four categories: edible (mushrooms and berries), specialty wood products (furniture), floral and decorative (dried flowers), and dietary supplements (ginseng).
U.S. Forest Service
The Forest Service collects revenues in nine different classes, including timber, grazing, recreation, power, and other land use. It aggregates these funds in the National Forest Fund, before being transferred to states or the General Fund of the U.S. Treasury.
The Forest Service also periodically auctions timber for harvest. These sales provide the majority of timber-related revenues to the Forest Service. In preparing for a sale, the Forest Service conducts a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis, determines the volume and value of the trees to be removed, sets the layout and design of the timber sale, and prepares the timber sale contract and permit. The process for a bid includes advertising the bid, bid opening, and final sale. The highest bid for the timber wins and the winning bidder then has a set period of time to harvest the timber. The Forest Service publishes this information in Periodic Timber Sale Accomplishment Reports.
The state portion of national forest receipts constitutes the largest dedicated collection, which means the funds must be used for designated activities or purposes. Since 1908, with few exceptions, states have received 25% of the total receipts collected from national forests within their borders. States must use these funds for public schools and roads in the county or counties where the forest is located.
The Forest Service publishes data on all payments and receipts.
BLM also collects revenues from the sale of timber. Most BLM timber sales come from Oregon and California lands. BLM deposits timber sale receipts into either the Timber Sale Pipeline Restoration Fund (TSPRF) or the Forest Ecosystem Health and Recovery Fund (FEHRF). Both of these funds are revolving accounts where receipts are used to prepare timber sales that meet legislative objectives.
BLM revenue distributions vary depending on whether or not they come from public domain lands, Oregon and California lands, or Coos Bay Wagon Road lands and what funding source was used to prepare the timber sale. BLM publishes annual statistics reports that documents distributions in greater detail.
Both BLM and the Forest Service distribute funds under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (SRSA) to reduce the impact from a reduction in timber sale receipts. Counties can elect to receive a payment calculated under a different formula and eligible to be spent public schools, special projects within the national forests, and projects related to minimizing wildfire risk. To read more about these payments, BLM provides information on distribution under SRSA to Oregon and California lands.