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Publications & Products


The Potential of U.S. Forest Soils to Sequester Carbon and Mitigate the Greenhouse Effect
ISBN: 1-5667-0583-5

Chapter 2: Current and Historical Trends in Use, Management and Disturbance of United States Forest Lands
by Richard A. Birdsey & George M. Lewis

Abstract: These tables present current and historical area estimates of land use, land use change, forest management, and natural disturbance for forest lands of the U.S. We reconstruct portions of the history of U.S. forests of the 20th century using readily available and sometimes obscure public information collected by the U.S. Government, principally the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce. Much of the information is highly aggregated from large electronic data bases containing detailed records for recent decades, and some is summarized from printed tables of information contained in hundreds of government reports from earlier decades. The quality, consistency, and available detail of the information decrease back through time.

Where possible we follow the definitions published in Smith et al. (2001), also available on the internet at When combining data from different sources, we use a term “land use/land cover” to acknowledge that the available data sets are themselves based on somewhat inconsistent definitions. Many of the definitions have changed over time. Periodically, analysts revise older data sets to be consistent with changing definitions and standards for data collection. The most recent compilation of U.S. forest statistics by Smith et al. (2001) is an excellent example of the presentation of consistent historical estimates. In other cases where possible we have adjusted historical estimates to current standards to account for methodology changes.
The USDA Forest Service, Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) has conducted a comprehensive U.S. forest inventory since 1928. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) periodically estimates “land cover/use” for private lands of the U.S. in their National Resources Inventory (NRI) (Natural Resources Conservation Service 2000). The USDA Economic Research Service “Census of Agriculture” program has produced estimates of land use by State for various categories since 1945 (e.g. Daugherty 1995). Some relevant historical data are contained in a Bureau of Census compilation (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975), while other data are available in periodic reports by Agencies or special compilations requested by Congress (for example, USDA 1928).
Errors became evident in reconciling the different sources of information because of inconsistency in definitions, independent sampling frames, uncoordinated timing of data collection, and gaps and overlaps in scope of data collection. We estimate that we are missing information on about 6 million ha of Federal nonforest land, and that there is a double counting of about 13 million ha of private forest land and rangeland. These errors amount to about 2% of the total land area of the U.S.

To View Online: The summarized data set can be seen by selecting one of the links below (It is best viewed in a Maximized browser):

To Download: Internet Explorer Users right click on the link and select "Save link as...". Netscape Users the files will automatically download when a link is selected.

Daugherty, Arthur B. September, 1995. Major Uses of Land in the United States: 1992. Agriculture Economic Report (AER) 723. USDA-Economic Research Service (ERS). Washington, D.C. 39 page document/Appendix tables 1 through 7 (pages 22-37).

Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2000. Summary report 1997 National Resources Inventory. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. 90 p.

Smith, W. Brad; Vissage, John S.; Darr, David R.; Sheffield, Raymond M. 2001. Forest resources of the United States, 1997. Gen. Tech. Rep. NC-219. St. Paul, MN: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, North Central Research Station. 191 p.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1975. Historical statistics of the United States, colonial times to 1970. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. 1928. American forests and forest products. Statistical Bulletin No. 21. Washington, DC: U.S. Gov. Printing Office. 220 p.