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Chapter 34. North America, excluding Mexico

Figure 34-1. North America excluding Mexico: forest cover map

For purposes of discussion, Canada and the United States are considered together in this chapter (Figure 34-1) Mexico has historically been considered part of either North or Central America, depending on the context. In terms of forest ecosystems, Mexico tends to have more in common with countries in Central America, and it is therefore discussed in the next chapter along with those countries.

The forests of Canada and the United States are among the largest, most diverse and most intensively utilized in the world. The combined forests of Canada and the United States account for 14 percent of the world's land area, 12 percent of the global forest area and 28 percent of the world's temperate and boreal forests. North America is about 26 percent forested, slightly below the global average of 30 percent (Table 34-1). An additional 11 percent of the region is "other wooded land" (between 5 and 10 percent canopy cover). In Canada, forest and other wooded land together comprise 45 percent of the land area, when inland water areas are not considered; in the United States, the respective figure is 31 percent.

Canada is the world's second largest country in terms of total land area (behind the Russian Federation), and Canada ranks third in total forest area behind the Russian Federation and Brazil. The United States follows close behind, ranking third in land area and fourth in forest area.


Canada's Forest Inventory 1991 is the authoritative national database on the distribution and structure of Canada's forest resource. The inventory is aggregated from many sources, including existing data available in the provincial and territorial forest services. Over the years the specifications of the modern source inventories have become more complete, and most provinces and territories have programmes of periodic inventory renewal for the active areas of forest management. The oldest source inventories, with the most missing values in the data, tend to be those from more remote areas.

Table 34-1: North America excluding Mexico: forest resources and management


Land area

Forest area 2000

Area change 1990-2000 (total forest)

Volume and above-ground biomass (total forest)

Forest under management plan

Natural forest

Forest plantation

Total forest

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha


ha/ capita

000 ha/ year




000 ha



922 097

244 571

244 571







173 400


United States

915 895

209 755

16 238

225 993







125 707


Total North America

1 837 992

454 326

16 238

470 564







299 107


Total North and Central America

2 136 966

531 771

17 533

549 304










13 063 900

3 682 722

186 733

3 869 455



-9 391






Source: Appendix 3, Tables 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9.
The United States Forest Service has conducted periodic forest inventories of all forested lands in the United States for more than 70 years, providing scientifically reliable data on the status, condition, trends and health of the nation's forests. The national forest inventory utilizes a systematic random grid sample design with remote sensing samples (30 m to 1 km resolution) and field samples (every 5 km) distributed uniformly across the landscape. Field crews collect a variety of ecosystem data. Samples are permanent, remeasured on a five- to ten-year cycle, and designed to an accuracy of ±1 percent per million hectares for forest area estimates and ±3 percent per billion cubic metres or volume estimates. Additional resource data are derived from surveys that monitor private forest landowner objectives, inputs to primary wood processing facilities, residential fuelwood use, participation in outdoor recreation and wildlife activity.

The forest cover in the two countries is 96.5 percent natural forest. Natural forests showed a net increase of 0.1 percent during the period 1990-2000. Canada reported zero plantation forests in 2000, while forest plantations accounted for 7 percent of total forest area in the United States (Table 34-1, Figure 34-2).

The volume of wood above ground averages 128 m3 per hectare in North America, considerably higher than the global average of 100 m3. In contrast, the average woody biomass in the region was 95 tonnes per hectare, considerably below the world average of 109 tonnes per hectare. Relative to tropical forests, the typical temperate or boreal forest has larger trees but lower tree density, especially in boreal forests. Hence it is not surprising that the woody volume per hectare in this region is higher than the global average, while the biomass is below the world average.

In comparison with other developed regions of the world, particularly Western Europe, North America still has relatively large areas of natural forests, especially in Canada and in the western United States.

Canada has a broad belt of coniferous forest, much of it boreal, across the country, with tundra to the north. In the temperate southern and eastern parts of the country (Ontario, Quebec and the maritime provinces), broadleaf species including maples (Acer spp.) and oaks (Quercus spp.) predominate - hence the famous maple leaf on the national flag. Species of birch (Betula spp.), alder (Alnus spp.) and willow (Salix spp.) occur widely throughout the country. British Columbia in the west has specific forest types determined by the montane and coastal nature of the province. Coniferous species make up the major part of the growing stock, the main species being spruces (Picea spp.), pines (Pinus spp.), firs (Abies spp.) and larches (Larix spp.). Along the western coast of British Columbia other species, which grow to very large sizes, include Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga spp.), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and western red cedar (Thuja spp.). There are about 180 species of forest trees in Canada and a very wide range of forest types in 15 different major ecological zones.

Forests in the United States are among the most diverse in the world, ranging from boreal forests in Alaska to tropical forests in Hawaii. In the "lower 48" states, forests in the east reside in a temperate humid climate zone to the north and a subtropical humid climate zone to the south and comprise both broadleaf deciduous and coniferous evergreen trees. The eastern temperate zone is heavily forested with second- and third-growth forests dominated by spruce-fir with northern pine forests (Pinus strobus) interspersed. Oaks, hickories (Carya ovata), yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), maples and beech (Fagus spp.) on the uplands and elm (Ulmus spp.), ash (Fraxinus spp.) and maple in the lowlands dominate the forests of the central and southern reaches of the eastern temperate zone. The temperate zone gives way to the subtropical zone in the middle and lower latitudes of the east, with extensive southern oak and hickory forests on the uplands with mixed oak and southern pine (Pinus elliottii) on the drier sites. Oak, gum (Eucalyptus spp.) and cypress (Cupressus spp.) dominate lowland forests throughout the subtropical zone of the east.

Figure 34-2. North America excluding Mexico: natural forest and forest plantation areas in 2000 and net changes 1990-2000

Forests in the western United States reside in arid and semi-arid conditions in the interior and in temperate oceanic and Mediterranean climates along the West Coast. Conifers, including spruce, pines, firs, cedars and hemlock, dominate western forests. In Alaska, boreal forests generally consist of closed stands of conifers (spruce, tamarack and fir) interspersed with birch and aspen. Hemlock, cedar and spruce dominate Alaska's southeastern coast. A small area of tropical humid climate is also found at low latitudes. Hawaii and extreme southern Florida support this regime. While southern Florida is dominated by wet savannah, Hawaii has evergreen and semideciduous forests of great diversity.


Canada and the United States are both developed countries with major forest resources. Both countries face similar challenges as they enter the new millennium, with increasing pressure to conserve or sustainably manage their large areas of natural forests. Both countries are among the world leaders in the production and export of forest products, and the United States is also the world's largest importer of forest products (including imports from Canada). Canada produces large quantities of all forest products and is particularly important as a producer of sawn timber and wood pulp (Natural Resources Canada/Canadian Forest Service 2000).

The United States produces around 30 percent of global industrial roundwood, and its share of global production and consumption of sawn timber, wood-based panels, pulp and paper is of a similar magnitude. Private forest lands provided 89 percent of the timber harvest as of 1996 (USDA Forest Service 2001).

The two North American countries differ significantly in the ownership of their forest resources. This has a major influence on approaches to forest management and political positions on international forest policy issues, seen most notably in their opposite positions on the merits of a global forest convention.

Over 93 percent of Canada's forests are publicly owned; provincial governments have jurisdiction over more than 70 percent of Canada's forest and other wooded land, and 23 percent is under federal and territorial government jurisdiction. Although privately owned forests constitute less than 7 percent of the forest area, there are more than 425 000 private landowners.

In the United States over 60 percent of forests are privately owned, with over 10 million private forest owners. Public forest ownership is concentrated in the west, while most private forests are in the east, with the result that forest politics tend to be influenced by geography. Vast tracts of private forests are owned by large companies, amounting to about 10 percent of the total forest area and the greatest part of the forest plantations. Historically, much of the timber production in the United States came from public lands, but in the past decade this was reduced to less than 10 percent. A major shift in public policy has greatly reduced timber harvesting in National Forests, which are increasingly used for recreation and environmental conservation. National Forests account for 17 percent of forest land and 19 percent of theoretically available timber supply; however, as of 1996 only 5 percent of the United States timber harvest came from National Forests.

Canada reported that 71 percent of its forest land is under management. Silvicultural systems used in managing even-aged forests for timber production include clear-cutting, seed-tree and shelterwood harvesting. Clear-cutting remains the most widely used silvicultural system in Canada, but harvesting techniques are changing. Canadian forestry officials have reported widespread use of advanced and appropriate regeneration techniques to ensure that most harvested areas will regenerate naturally, supplemented by planting or seeding on sites where regeneration fails to meet stocking standards (Natural Resources Canada/Canadian Forest Service 1999). More than 16 million hectares of Canadian forest land are certified under one of the three systems used in Canada: those of the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

In the United States, a reported 55 percent of the total forest area is under management. While 100 percent of public forests can be considered covered by management plans, an estimated 70 percent of public forest is managed for multiple objectives and the remaining 30 percent is in protected areas. Only about 5 percent of the private landowners have written management plans, but these cover 39 percent of the private forest area because most large forest owners have management plans (USDA Forest Service 2001). Private lands are regulated by the states, and all states have forest management laws. Forest policies and legislation are heavily influenced by the constitutional and customary rights of private property owners. For both public and private lands, forest management decisions are usually decentralized to the local level.

Forests throughout the North American region are vulnerable to forest fires and forest pests. For the past half century, Canada and the United States, together with Mexico (the third member of the North American Forestry Commission), have collaborated on research and management approaches to protect their forest resources from fire and pests. The extent to which the three countries cooperate in fighting forest fires could serve as a model for other countries.

Several native North American insect species - spruce budworm, forest tent caterpillar, hemlock looper and jack pine budworm - annually defoliate areas of Canada's forest. The spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) is considered the most destructive pest of fir and spruce forests in eastern Canada (Natural Resources Canada/Canadian Forest Service 1999). In the United States, native pest outbreaks tend to be triggered by conditions such as weather or timber stands that are overmature, overcrowded or otherwise under stress. In addition, severe impacts have resulted from introduced pests, including the gypsy moth, chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease, white pine blister rust and the Asian longhorn beetle.

Forest fires are among the most critical forest management challenges in the region. Increasingly, attention has been turned to the positive as well as the negative effects of fire. One of the great ironies of the history of forest management and protection in North America is that successful efforts to prevent and control forest fires have contributed to increasing the overall threats that fire and pests pose to the health and productivity of forests.

Wildfire performs many valuable ecological services in Canada's forests. Several species are adapted to and may even require fire for reproduction. Other species, however, are very averse to fire and may disappear entirely from an area if fire becomes too frequent or severe. It is therefore important to track not only the national area burned, but also the location of fire activity in different ecological zones and forest types. Furthermore, while fire suppression may allow an increase in the mean stand age in an area, it may also allow greater accumulation of organic material which may fuel more severe fires in the future. For this reason, minimizing fire is not always desirable. In fact, long-term forest sustainability includes a role for naturally variable fire activity (Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, annual).

Similarly, in the United States during the 1990s fire came to be increasingly viewed as a management tool as well as a deadly enemy. The worst damage from forest fires occurred in areas where fires had been successfully prevented and suppressed in the previous decades, which had resulted in an increase in fuel.

On average, 91.5 percent of all fires in Canada in the 1990s were found to burn less than 10 ha; these fires accounted for 0.4 percent of the total area burned. Conversely, the 1.4 percent of all fires that exceeded 1 000 ha accounted for 93.1 percent of the total area burned. Some 58 percent of all fires in Canada started as a result of human carelessness, but these fires burned only 15 percent of the total area burned. Lightning, on the other hand, started 42 percent of all fires, accounting for 85 percent of the total area burned. Six of the ten most severe years of recorded forest fires were in the 1990s.

Forest fires are a serious problem in the United States, where on average 108 597 fires occurred per year during the 1990s. In the interior west, heavy fuel loads, exacerbated until recently by a strict fire control policy, combined with a ready source of ignition (lightning) and rugged terrain, have resulted in serious and difficult to control fires in some locations almost every year. In addition, some forest pest outbreaks appear to have been related to ill health of forest stands which was partly a result of their successful protection from fire - including natural lightning fire - over a long period of time.

Canada and the United States both have large populations of indigenous people. In Canada, aboriginal communities are often more dependent on products from the forest than non-aboriginal communities. The income in-kind represented by subsistence products (i.e. the replacement cost of purchasing similar products from a store) accounts for a significant proportion of total household income. Equally important is the role of subsistence forest products in maintaining the social fabric of the community and in preserving aboriginal culture. A significantly high percentage of food that is gathered by individuals in the community is shared or bartered with other members of the community. Moreover, members of aboriginal communities consider living from the land as an important aspect of traditional culture.

In the United States, 555 federally recognized Native American tribes own about 6.9 million hectares of forest and other wooded land. In addition, Native Americans have rights of harvest and collection on an estimated 70 million hectares of federal lands. Many of the tribes or their members own forest products businesses, commercial fishing operations or guiding and outfitting operations for hunting and other types of recreation. Products harvested for tribal use include fish, fur-bearing animals, game for meat and hides to make clothing and other goods, fuelwood, plants for food and medicinal uses and materials for crafts such as basketry. The forest also has important symbolic and cultural value, with certain sites having particular spiritual or cultural significance (Birch 1996).

Throughout North America there is increasing commercial demand for non-wood forest products such as mushrooms, honey, various species of nuts, medicinal and herbal plants and decorative foliage. Hunting is a source of significant income for both private landowners and public management agencies. Fishing is also frequently associated with forests. Recreation and tourism have become increasingly important to national and local economies.


The 1990s saw major changes in approaches to forest management in both the United States and Canada. Perhaps the most dramatic change was the large increase in local consultation and conflict resolution processes in decision-making about forests. Some observers noted that these two major developed countries were learning to use social and community forestry techniques that had been pioneered in developing countries over the previous several decades.

In Canada the 1990s witnessed increasing consultation with stakeholders (forest owners, industries, aboriginal groups, policy-makers, etc.) to identify appropriate forest strategies, legislation, and management plans. Strategies varied and included buyer regulations, land use planning, regulations for forestry practices on forest land and agricultural land, and licences to reduce clear-cutting, among others.

In the United States, much attention was focused on the management of National Forests. Legal decisions and public opinion at the national level continued to shift towards an increased emphasis on recreation, amenity values and biodiversity protection on public lands, setting off confrontations with local communities who have relied on timber harvesting and other development activities on National Forest lands for jobs and income. In some cases, local approaches to conflict resolution helped to resolve conflicts, but in other cases disagreements over forest management contributed to community polarization.

As the 1990s drew to a close, the brown spruce longhorn beetle, native to central Europe and Asia, was found in Nova Scotia, a grim reminder of the vulnerability of North America's forests to exotic pests. In its home environment the beetle eats only dead and dying trees, but in Canada it appears to feed on living red spruce trees which are native to North America. Dutch elm disease is again spreading fast across eastern Ontario; this may be a result of the 1998 ice storm, as beetles that carry the disease have moved into breaks in branches and are spreading the infection.

In 1999 the Canadian Senate released a report on Canada's progress in achieving the national goals of sustainable forest management and the protection of biodiversity in boreal forests. According to the report, Canadians must find better ways to manage the boreal forest to meet the competing needs of preserving the resource, maintaining the lifestyle and values of boreal communities, extracting economic wealth and preserving ecological values. Portions of Canada's remaining undisturbed boreal forest and its areas of old growth are now at risk from both climate change and overcutting. The report concluded that the demands being placed on Canada's forests could no longer be met under the current system of management. It was recommended that the boreal forest be divided into three categories: 20 percent to be intensively managed for timber production; roughly 60 percent to be reserved for multiple use which would include some less intensive timber production; and up to 20 percent to be protected.

The sustainable management of forests in Canada continued to gain momentum as a goal for all stakeholders. There was progress towards a network of protected areas. On the economic front, in 2000 the Canadian pulp and the paper industry experienced record exports (Natural Resources Canada/Canadian Forest Service 2000).

In the United States, the 2000 Assessment of Forest and Range Lands carried out by the Forest Service (USDA Forest Service 2001) found that the area of forest land has remained relatively stable at about one-third of the total land area. Prior to European settlement about 50 percent of the land in the United States was forested. The United States was the first country to set aside forests in protected areas, and by 2000 the protected forest area accounted for 40 percent of total forests (essentially all public forests) - by far the largest protected forest area in the world. Deforestation has not been a national problem in the United States since about 1920, although at the local level valuable forests were sometimes victims of urban expansion. Forest losses have been more than offset by reversion of pasture and cropland to forests, both naturally and through afforestation and reforestation. Over the coming decades, the area of privately owned forest land is expected to decline and more outputs will need to be produced from a stable or perhaps slowly declining land base. Fragmentation of privately owned forest land will make management of these lands for timber production an increasing challenge. Forest health and productivity are major concerns in the United States.

In the United States, population and income are projected to continue to grow. While per capita consumption of timber products is projected to remain relatively stable, total consumption is expected to increase because of increased population, including increases due to immigration. As a result of major policy changes, there has been a substantial decline in the volume harvested from the National Forests in the western United States (from 57 million cubic metres in 1986 to 23 million cubic metres per year in 1996). As a consequence timber harvesting has shifted towards private lands, especially on softwood plantations in the south. As in the past, it is anticipated that technology will continue to lead to increased output per unit of roundwood input.

A lack of information about the supply of non-wood forest products in North America makes it difficult to assess the sustainability of current use or appropriate management techniques. Growth in demand, both domestic and international, for many of these products has led to the potential threat of overuse, destructive production techniques and possible harm to the productivity of the resources. A coherent monitoring and management policy for non-wood products is needed. At a minimum, future assessments should determine what products are important to report at the international scale, provide clearer definitions for the products and require better information about the source and coverage of the data. Finally, existing and potential conflicts between users, combined with the increasing demand, are creating immediate challenges for managers.

In both the United States and Canada, it has recently been recognized that in order to prevent catastrophic loss from fire, insects and diseases, forests must be maintained in a healthy condition. Forests that were formerly maintained in seral stages by frequent fires have experienced a change in character with fire exclusion. Fuel loads have increased and understory trees and shrubs have become established which result in catastrophic, stand-replacing fires. Senescent stands and climax species are also more vulnerable to attack by insects and diseases. It is difficult to duplicate the natural conditions that formerly existed. Prescribed burning, especially with the terrain and weather conditions prevalent in the west, is difficult, costly and risky. Numerous groups oppose harvesting, especially on publicly owned lands. Yet the alternative is an increasing frequency and magnitude of catastrophic fires and insect and disease attacks.

Forest policy-makers in Canada and the United States will continue to be confronted with difficult choices in the face of greatly divergent opinions about priorities for managing forest resources.


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