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Forests on the Edge:
Housing Development on America's Private Forests

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Uses of this study


America’s private forests are changing. Many are located at the edges of growing towns and cities, or in prime recreation areas popular for second-home development. As more housing is built in private forests, their values and uses can be altered.

Increases in housing density and associated development, such as power lines, septic and sewer systems, and shopping centers, can be linked to:

  • Decreases in native fish and wildlife, and their habitats
  • Changes in forest health
  • Reduced opportunities for outdoor recreation
  • Poorer water quality
  • Altered hydrology
  • Greater loss of life and property to wildfire
  • Changes in traditional uses of forests
  • Decreases in the production of timber and other forest products

This report is the first in a series. It displays and describes housing density projections on private forests, by watershed, across the conterminous United States (commonly called the lower 48, not including Alaska, Hawaii, and island territories for which data were not available). Future reports will assess the contributions of private forests to timber, wildlife, and water resources; they will also provide housing density projections on a wider range of vegetation types.

Key Points Covered

  • Private forests play a key role in protecting water quality.
  • Changes in long term trends related to forests
  • Assessing housing development on private forests
  • Special considerations for urban areas and the west

Although most watersheds meeting our selection criteria are projected to undergo significant housing density shifts on less than 5 percent of their surface area, these shifts could have significant impacts at the local level. Twenty-six watersheds were projected to experience increased housing development on more than 20 percent of the watershed's area. On a national level this may not be considerable; however, such a level of change could have tremendous impacts on many ecological values in these watersheds, including water quality.

Map of housing density

More than 15 watersheds of the 1,026 that met the selection criteria are projected to experience housing density increases on more than 200,000 acres of their surface area. The following tabulation depicts the number of acres of forest expected to shift either (a) from rural to exurban or (b) from rural or exurban to urban in each of the top 15 watersheds (all these watersheds are located in the Eastern United States):


Private forest—Includes tribal, forest industry, and non-industrial private ownerships; excluded public lands and private lands protected through conservation easements.

Rural—Private forest lands with 16 or fewer housing units per square mile. Forest lands with this housing density can generally support a diversity of economic and ecological functions commonly associated with private forests, such as management for timber, most wildlife species, and water quality.

Exurban—Private forest lands with 16 to 64 housing units per square mile. Lands with these higher housing densities can still support many wildlife species and other ecological functions, although perhaps at a reduced level. However, management for commercial timber may be less likely.

Urban—Private forest lands with 64 or more housing units per square mile. Such lands are less likely to be used for timber production or to contribute to wildlife habitat and water quality because of increased road density, infrastructure, and human population levels. Such forest patches, however, are often highly valued for their aesthetics, noise abatement properties, and positive effect on property values.


Stein, S.M.; McRoberts, R.E.; Alig, R.J.; Nelson, M.D; Theobald, D.M.; Eley, M.; Dechter, M.; Carr, M.A.. 2009. Forests on the Edge, Housing Development on America’s Private Forests. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-636. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 15 p.