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Non-timber forest products help fuel rural economies


Photo: A hand holds up ginseng root freshly dug from the ground.
Many rural landowners harvest specialty products like medicinal herbs, wild onions, mushrooms, and the American ginseng pictured here to generate income and meet market demands. Forest Service photo by Gary Kauffman.

WASHINGTON, DC

—Non-timber forest products are fundamental to the functioning of healthy forests and play vital roles in rural cultures and economies. However, these plants and fungi used for food, medicine and other purposes are at risk due to due to stressors such as drought, fire, insects and disease, and climatic variability.

A new report by USDA Forest Service researchers provides science-based information to help decision-makers, practitioners and researchers promote the sustainable harvest of non-timber forest products. The Assessment of Nontimber Forest Products in the United States Under Changing Conditions synthesizes the best available science for managing non-timber forest resources in the United States.

“Many private landowners harvest non-timber products to generate income from their forests,” said Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen. “The harvest of specialty products like medicinal herbs, wild onions and mushrooms creates jobs, boosts rural economies and meets growing market demands.”

These harvests contribute millions of dollars to the U.S. economy each year. For example, in 2001 the estimated market value of four medicinal and floral species (blood root, black cohosh, American ginseng and galax) exceeded $25 million. However, the lack of available data has impeded a thorough economic analysis of these and other non-timber products. The Forest Service report helps fill this gap and guides readers through the laws and regulations at the local, state and federal levels that complicate sustainable management and conservation of these important natural resources.

“Commercial markets for many raw non-timber forest products are well-established, even when not highly visible,” said Toral Patel-Weynand, national director of Sustainable Forest Management Research and one of the report editors.

Non-timber forest products are harvested in all types of forest, grassland and wetland environments. Changes in forest dynamics, including soil moisture and temperature, may impact populations and ranges of non-timber forest species, particularly understory spring ephemeral herbs. The non-timber forest products of the end of the 21st century may be significantly different than those of today. The report assesses the potential effects of climatic variability on non-timber forest products and how those effects may disrupt the benefits derived from non-timber forest products.

The report also highlights the importance of non-timber forest products to the cultures of diverse communities in the U.S. Including these stakeholders in management and policy dialogues will help promote sustainable the harvest of non-timber forest products for decades to come.