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U.S. Forest Service Inventory Shows Overall Health, Future Challenges for Southern New England Forests

AMHERST, MA, October 31, 2011 - An inventory of forests in Southern New England by the U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis(FIA) program indicates that the region’s forests are relatively healthy but face challenges in the future.

The inventory is the fifth forest census to be conducted for the forests of Southern New England by the U.S. Forest Service’s FIA program. The inventory defined Southern New England as including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Previous inventories were conducted in 1998, 1985, 1972, and 1953.

A report based on inventory results, “The Forests of Southern New England, 2007,” was released on-line on Oct. 28 and describes a wide range of forest conditions, including forest features, forest health indicators such as insects, diseases, and soil conditions, and forest economics. The report is available online at:

Southern New England forests include an estimated 2.6 billion trees, over 88 tree species, and cover 5.1 million acres, or 59 percent of the three-state area. That total includes 3 million acres of forest land in Massachusetts, 1.7 million acres in Connecticut, and 0.4 million acres in Rhode Island.

The overall health of Southern New England forests remains relatively good despite the presence of invasive insects such as the Asian longhorned beetle and hemlock wooley adelgid. With 47 percent of all trees in Southern New England’s forests susceptible to Asian longhorned beetle, however, the insect could have a substantial impact on hardwood forests across the region. Future threats to forest health also include the potential for the spread of the emerald ash borer, a non-native invasive species that has killed millions of trees in Michigan and surrounding states.

The FIA inventory documents a steady loss of ground for forests. Between 1998 and 2007, the region lost 285,000 acres of forest land; equal to losing 87 acres of forest land per day. Rhode Island had a 9 percent reduction in forest land area between 1998 and 2007, Connecticut an 8 percent loss, and Massachusetts a 3 percent loss, according to the report. Land use conversions amounted to over half of the timber volume removed in the three-state region.

While most of the three-state area is forested, most of this forest land exists in close proximity to buildings and roads, according to the FIA report. Thirty-nine percent of the forest land is located in areas with at least 150 houses per square mile. This varies across the region, ranging from 13 percent in western Massachusetts to 72 percent in eastern Massachusetts. In Southern New England, 49 percent of the forest land is within 300 feet of developed or agricultural land. Thirty-four percent of the forest land is within 330 feet of a road and 72 percent is within 980 feet. Increased fragmentation has implications for wildlife habitat, forest health, ecosystem services, and forest management opportunities. 

Wildlife habitat is also affected by the size of Southern New England forests, where stand size has been steadily increasing. Large stands now account of 75 percent of forest land. Only 4 percent of the forest land is occupied by small, predominately young, stands required for certain wildlife species, including the New England cottontail rabbit, a species that is being considered for federal listing as either threatened or endangered.

The FIA report shows forest ownership to be on the cusp of change in Southern New England. The region’s forests are mostly privately owned; ranging from 85 percent in Rhode Island to 69 percent in Massachusetts. Of these private acres, 72 percent are owned by families, individuals, and other unincorporated groups, collectively referred to as family forest owners. A total of 428,000 family forest owners control 52 percent of forested acres across the region. Ninety percent of these owners have between 1 and 9 acres of forest land. The average parcel size is decreasing and a lot of land will soon be changing hands; 1 in 4 acres is owned by someone who plans to pass the land onto heirs or sell it on the near future.

Other inventory findings include:

  • Of the 88 species inventoried, red maple and eastern white pine are the most common species found. Fifty percent of the forest land is classified as the oak/hickory forest type.
  • The report showed net decreases in a few species, such as beech and butternut.
  • Twenty-one percent of the forest land in Southern New England lies within urban areas and urban clusters. In Massachusetts, 22 percent of the forest land is urban, in Connecticut 20 percent is urban, and in Rhode Island 19 percent is urban.
  • The wood products industry of Southern New England employs approximately 23,500 people, with an average annual payroll of $1.1 billion.
  • Eastern white pine is the most common tree harvested, followed by red maple, black oak, and northern red oak.
  • Southern New England’s forests currently contain more than 418 million tons of carbon; 61 percent of this forest carbon is in Massachusetts, 32 percent is in Connecticut, and 6 percent is in Rhode Island.
  • Invasive plant species are wide spread issue in Southern New England, with multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, and oriental bittersweet currently the biggest problems.

Forest Inventory and Analysis collects, analyzes, reports, and distributes data about the nation’s forests: how much forest exists, who owns it, what condition it's in, where it’s located, and how it's changed. The Northern Research Station FIA unit is responsible for creating and maintaining a comprehensive forest inventory for 24 states in the Northeast and Midwest.

The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. The mission of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station is to improve people’s lives and help sustain the natural resources in the Northeast and Midwest through leading-edge science and effective information delivery.