US forests in retreat as housing advances

America's forests are being swallowed up by housing developments at an alarming rate sparking a raft of ecological concerns and raising questions over the impact on water resources.

According to a new study published by the US Forest Service, Forests on the Edge: Housing Development on America’s Private Forests, building is increasing at a dramatic rate as landowners see more money to be made from developing the ultimate greenfield sites than from managing them for timber or recreation.

“Every day America loses more than 4,000 acres of open space to development, more than three acres per minute, and the rate of conversion is getting faster all the time,” said Dale Bosworth, Forest Service chief.

“In some places we’re losing large, relatively undisturbed forests needed by animals like marten, bear and cougar.

“In others we’re losing rangeland that many plants and animals need and where private space is lost, recreational pressures on public lands tend to grow.”

As well as the obvious conservations issues, the rapid increase in development witnessed by the Forest Service creates problems with land becoming contaminated with pollutants from building materials, which many in turn seep into the water tables.

Built up areas also reduce the forests’ ability to act as a reservoir for the country.

At the moment forests are the source of almost a third of the USA’s fresh water but this figure is set to drop as the wooded land disappears.

Between 1982 and 1997 around 700,000 acres of forest was felled to make way for housing but in the past five years that figure has leapt up past the 1 million acre mark.

The Forest Services study predicts the south east, home to three quarters of the country’s private forests, will be hardest hit by the rush for woodland homes, while pressure will also be high in parts of the north east, Pacific north west and California.

The services concerns include:

  • Decreases in native fish and wildlife and their habitats.
  • Changes in forest health.
  • Reduced opportunities for outdoor recreation.
  • Reduced water quality.
  • Altered hydrology.
  • Greater loss of life and property to wildfire.
  • Changes in traditional uses of forests.
  • Decreases in the production of timber and other forest products.

    By Sam Bond

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