By Eric Sprague, Justin Hynicka and Jeff Lerner
THE UNITED STATES ONCE CONTAINED 1 BILLION ACRES OF FOREST, rich in diversity and abundant in wildlife. And, while today we estimate 765 million acres of forest remain, only a few million acres of old-growth are left. Much of the rest has been altered. More than 60 million acres are now at high risk of catastrophic wildfire due to decades of suppressing natural wildfires; more than 50 million acres are managed more as tree plantations than forests, and 136 million acres are urban forests where areas impacted by development continue to expand.
In short, we have fewer forests, and large portions of those that remain are fragmented and degraded. Not surprisingly, those factors spell outright loss of habitat and are the main threats to biological diversity in our country. Because of these factors, more than 17,000 species of animals and plants in the U.S. are considered at risk of extinction.
In the last 25 years, American Forests has restored more than 150,000 acres of forest, an area that would cover more than 200 square miles if it were contiguous, through projects in every state. Yet, we know so much more needs to be done to restore forest habitat and recover populations of at-risk species. What is needed is a more strategic approach. Taking on that challenge, American Forests has embarked on a new initiative to focus on a handful of critical forest ecosystems in the U.S. with the goal of accelerating conservation activities for critical wildlife habitat in those areas: our new Wildlands for Wildlife initiative.
Introduced here are the initial seven forest ecosystems where we will invest in restoration work, participate in conservation planning, engage policymakers and raise public awareness. After a review of regions across the U.S., these priority areas were selected because, though they have been severely reduced in size and extent as a result of various factors, they are key to the recuperation of biodiversity and are places for which opportunities exist to accelerate the pace of ecosystem recovery. Systems were also chosen based on American Forests’ history in the areas, our ability to make long-term commitments to play a transformational role in ecosystem recovery and the potential to raise awareness about the need for restoration in these neglected forests.
Wildlands for Wildlife will build on other American Forests programs by implementing a range of protection, restoration and stewardship actions in each priority area, focusing on controlling invasive plants and pests, enhancing habitat structure, fostering climate change resilience, informing public policy and reintroducing forest wildlife back into the wild.
To embark on this long-term journey, it’s important that we familiarize our members with the seven critical forest ecosystems.