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Frequently Asked Questions

Questions about the Loss of Open Space

Questions about the Open Space Conservation Strategy

What is open space?[back to top]
Open space means many different things to different people.  For the purposes of the Open Space Conservation Strategy, the Forest Service defines open space as land that is valued for natural processes and wildlife, agricultural and forest production, aesthetic beauty, active and passive recreation, and other public benefits. Such lands include working and natural forests, rangelands and grasslands, farms, ranches, parks, stream and river corridors, and other natural lands within rural, suburban, and urban areas. Open space may be protected or unprotected, public or private.
Why is it important to conserve open space?[back to top]
Open space -- public land, private forests, tribal forests, ranches, farms, and other undeveloped lands -- provide a multitude of public benefits, ecosystem services, and products we all need and enjoy such as water, economic prosperity, wildlife, recreation, and wildfire protection.
Why is the Forest Service concerned about the loss of open space?[back to top]
The Forest Service is concerned about the loss of open space, especially within private forests and around the National Forests and Grasslands. Development of open space affects the agency’s ability to manage the National Forests and Grasslands, as well as our ability to help private landowners and communities manage their land for public and ecosystem benefits. 
How is forest land changing?[back to top]
Forest lands are changing as urban and suburban areas expand outward, and as people move to rural areas. 
What is driving the move to rural areas?[back to top]
Growth in rural areas is driven largely by retirees, second home owners, telecommuters, and “extreme” commuters** who want to live in beautiful places with open space amenities. Not all rural areas are growing but many places are seeing rapid growth. Places like the Mountain West, Upper Great Lakes, Ozarks, and parts of the South and Northeast are seeing the greatest population gains.
**”Extreme” commuters are those who commute an average of 90 minutes or more each way to work. Currently 3.4 million Americans endure this type of commute.
How does development affect forests and open space?[back to top]
There are three interrelated trends that can help us understand how development and growth is affecting our forests and other open spaces. They are:
  • Conversion,
  • Fragmentation, and
  • Parcelization.
What is conversion?[back to top]
Conversion is the replacement of forests with houses, buildings, lawns, and pavement.   When we lose forests and other open spaces, we lose the ecosystem services, like clean water and wildlife habitat, and public benefits they provide.  Also, more homes in the woods put more people and property in danger from wildfires. 
How does fragmentation occur?[back to top]
Fragmentation occurs when new housing and other developments disturb a larger area than just the footprint of the new structures.  Roads and power lines that service new homes divide forests into fragments, especially when houses are dispersed at low-densities across the landscape on 5, 10, 40 acres tracts. Fragmentation affects the quality of wildlife habitat and encourages the spread of invasive species.  Many species require contiguous blocks of habitat to survive, and critical winter habitat is often on private land adjacent to National Forests and other public land.
How does parcelization affect forest benefits?[back to top]
Parcelizationn happens when forestland is subdivided, and forested properties become smaller in size while the number of forest owners grows. Smaller parcels can be more difficult to manage for timber, recreation, forest health, wildfire prevention, water, and wildlife. Subdivision of land into small parcels can cut off traditional access points to public land and reduce the amount of private land available for recreation.
Is there any benefit to parcelization?[back to top]
This trend has a positive benefit in enabling more people to own and enjoy their own piece of the forest. However, smaller parcels tend to be used as house lots contributing to the loss and fragmentation of forests. 
What are the primary reasons for parcelization of forestland?[back to top]
Forest landowners have many reasons for selling, subdividing, and developing their land, including:
  • Rising property values – As more people move to rural areas property values increase, increasing the economic push for landowners to cash out the value of their land.
  • Lack of estate planning – An estimated 79 million acres of non-industrial private forestland are transferred annually at the death of their owners.  In many cases, next-generation owners are either less interested than their parents in owning the land or sell the properties to pay the estate taxes. 
  • Tax bills – An estimated 1.3 million acres of non-industrial private forestland are being sold each year because other assets are inadequate to pay tax bills. 
  • Industrial divestiture of land – Millions of acres of industrial forests are currently switching ownerships from timber companies to timber investment management companies and other ownerships. In the South alone, over 18 million acres of forestland have changed hands over the past 10 years.  Factors driving this switch are related to debt reduction, taxes, and maximization of shareholder returns. 
How can I get more information about the loss of open space issue?[back to top]
To learn more about the loss of open space, you can read the following publications:

How does open space conservation relate to the Forest Service’s mission?[back to top]
Our mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.  We cannot fulfill this mission without addressing the rapid loss of open space.  Development of open space affects the agency’s ability to manage the national forests and grasslands, as well as our ability to help private landowners and communities sustainably manage their land to maintain private and public benefits and ecosystem services.   
How does the Open Space Conservation Strategy relate to the Chief’s themes of Climate Change, Water, and Kids and the Four Threats?[back to top]
As a Nation, we are currently facing a number of interrelated issues that threaten the sustainability of our forests – these include climate change, invasive species, unmanaged recreation, catastrophic wildfire, drought, and habitat fragmentation. Together these issues are affecting the ability of our private and public forests to provide ecosystem services and benefits -- such as clean supplies of water, native wildlife and fish populations, and places for kids to play outdoors. The loss of open space is at the core of all of these issues – where and how we are choosing to grow as a society is contributing to our carbon emissions, helping spread invasive species, putting pressure on our water supplies, reducing places available and accessible for outdoor recreation, putting people and property at risk of wildfire, and eliminating quality wildlife habitat and corridors.
What is the Forest Service role in open space conservation?[back to top]
We envision the Forest Service role as catalyst and motivator, in partnership with tribes and local communities. Our role is not to regulate development or land use. Land decisions are appropriately made at the local level.  We can contribute to open space conservation as a policy advisor at the national level, a convener at the regional level, and an information provider and stakeholder at the local level. 
Will you respect property rights? [back to top]
The Forest Service respects private property rights and local jurisdiction and will only work with willing landowners, communities, and partners to promote voluntary open space conservation.
What authorities allow the Forest Service to help state foresters and private landowners?[back to top]
The Forest Service has over 100 years of history working with States and landowners. The Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978 [16 USC 2101] authorizes the Forest Service to assist states and private landowners to promote forest health, stewardship, conservation, and fire management on non-Federal forest lands of the United States. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA) [16 USC 1600] recognizes that the majority of the Nation’s forest lands are “under private, State, and local government management.” The Act directs the Forest Service to be a “catalyst to encourage and assist these owners in the efficient long-term use and improvement of these lands.”
Why don’t you fully fund Forest Legacy Program and the stateside Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)?[back to top]
The Forest Legacy Program and LWCF are both important programs to conserve important open space. But federal conservation land acquisition/easement programs are one tool among many outlined in the Strategy for conserving open space. In tight budget times, it is increasingly important to engage states, tribes, partners and communities to collaborate to conserve open space.
How does this strategy relate to the USDA Farm Bill proposals currently before Congress?[back to top]
USDA heard strong support for open space conservation in the USDA Farm Bill listening sessions and federal register notice. As a result, the Administration's Farm Bill proposals add new authorities and funding for open space conservation. The USDA Farm Bill would increase funding for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and the Healthy Forest Reserve Program. The USDA proposals would also authorize and fund:
  • A new Market-Based Approach to Conservation program to advance the development of markets and payments for ecosystem services;
  • Compreshensive Statewide Forest Planning to enable States to work across boundaries to identify priority forest landscapes for conservation; and
  • A Community Forest Working Lands program to conserve open space by funding community forests and forest resource assistance to communities.

All of the actions in the Forest Service Open Space Conservation Strategy can be implemented using existing authorities and budget, however the USDA Farm Bill proposals would enhance and improve the agency's ability to implement the strategy and would help scale the agency's efforts to the scope of the problem. The USDA proposals would help us implement ten of the thirteen priority actions in the Strategy.
How can the Forest Service work with community partners to conserve open space?[back to top]
The Forest Service is willing and able to engage in partnerships for open space conservation. We have expertise, resources, and programs that can help. 
  • Our research and development branch has scientists who study land use trends and effects. 
  • Our State & Private branch has programs that help landowners and communities conserve and manage over 500 million acres of non-federal forests.
  • The National Forests provide 193 million acres of public open space. In addition, forest supervisors and district rangers regularly work with local communities to conserve and manage forests across boundaries for mutual benefits – e.g. reducing wildfire fuels around homes and communities. 
Did you use public involvement to develop the Strategy?[back to top]
The Forest Service published a Federal Register notice in November 2006 inviting the public to provide ideas for innovative tools and partnerships in achieving open space conservation. We received nearly 9,500 comments with over 90% of the respondents supporting a greater Forest Service emphasis on open space conservation.

The Conservation Fund held three roundtable dialogue listening sessions on the Forest Service’s role in conserving open space. These sessions were held in Chapel Hill, NC; Washington, DC; and Denver, CO in November and December 2006.  In addition, we asked Forest Service employees for their comments. 

In June, a second Federal Register notice solicited comments on a Draft Strategy. The Forest Service received over 13,000 comments on the Draft, with nearly all in support of the Strategy. The final Open Space Conservation Strategy incorporates comments and input from the public.

In total, we recieved 22,000 comments with the vast majority supportive of the Open Space Conservation Strategy.

We also heard strong support for open space consveration in the USDA Farm Bill listening sessions and federal Register Notice.
How will you implement the Open Space Conservation Strategy?[back to top]
The Strategy will be implemented through a grassroots approach to encourage continual learning, innovations, and engagement by all levels of the Forest Service.
  • National Level – The Forest Service will promote national policies and markets, such as carbon storage and ecosystem service markets, to help private landowners conserve open space.
  • Regional Level – The Forest Service will convene partners to identify and protect priority open space. Priority areas will be important environmentally and socially – this includes water resources, wildlife habitat, and recreation and historic areas.
  • Local Level – Forest Service field units will participate in community growth planning to reduce ecological impacts and wildfire risks. Forest Service participation in local planning efforts will help promote access and recreation opportunities for communities.  We will also continue to provide resources and tools to local communities to help create and manage urban open spaces.