Amid rising numbers of at-risk wildlife in the South, the American Forest Foundation (AFF), a forest conservation organization that works with family forest owners and key partner of the National Association of State Foresters has released a new report that reveals private and family landowners in the South offer a solution to helping at-risk wildlife species.
Across 13 southeastern states, Southern forests rank at the top in terms of biodiversity when measured by the number of wildlife and plant species. But, due to forest conversion to non-forest uses such as agricultural land, housing development and commercial expansion, fragmented waterways, natural fire suppression and an influx of invasive species, a significant number of the South’s wildlife species are now at risk. Currently, there are 224 forest-dependent species listed as endangered or threatened, with 293 candidate and petitioned species that could be listed in the near future.
At the same time, these Southern forests supply much of the raw material for consumer wood products worldwide, and support nearly 1.1 million people in rural communities with employment.
While this may sound like a conservation versus industry story, it’s a conservation and industry story – when you consider the opportunity with Southern family forest owners. Families and private individuals own more forests in the U.S. than any other group, even more the state and federal governments. In fact in the South, they own nearly 60% of the forests.
According to the report, Southern Wildlife At Risk: Family Forest Owners Offer a Solution, 87 percent of landowners in the South, say protecting and improving wildlife habitat is the top reason they own land. Already, 72 percent have stated they have conducted one or more management activities for wildlife, and 73 percent state they want to do more in the future.
In addition, the report found that landowners who harvest or thin their forests, are the individuals doing more for wildlife – 85% of those who have harvested have also implemented other wildlife-improvement activities, compared to 62% by those who haven't harvested. This is likely because landowners who harvest are already working with foresters or other professionals, have access to information, and are recieving the needed income to that can ve reinvested in more land management.
But overall, landowners across the South are not conducting management practices on an ongoing basis. Landowners cite an uncertainty about whether they are doing right by their land, difficulty finding support and the cost of management, as barriers preventing them.
The report also identified 35 million acres of family-owned forests, in three key landscapes in the South, where an increase in family forest owners managing can provide habitat for at-risk wildlife while continuing to support the future supply of wood.
Already partnerships among state agencies, university extensions, groups like AFF and more are working in these key landscapes to get more landowners actively managing on an ongoing basis. Through outreach and relationship building with trusted resources like professionals and foresters, the partnerships are helping landowners take the first steps in conducting practices such as treating invasives, replanting native tree species, thinning and harvesting, repairing waterways, and conducting population surveys. These projects have been successful thanks in part to the leadership and support of the State Foresters across the South.