A new report raises new issues and questions about the future of forestland and the forest products industry in the south, but wood bioenergy could elicit significant changes in forest conditions, management and wood markets. Harvesting wood for bioenergy is projected to range from 170 to 336 million green tons by 2050, an increase of 54-113% over current levels.

Southern Forest Futures Project, authored by David Wear and John Greis of the U.S. Forest Service, point to several factors that will inevitably impact the south’s forests, but a primary factor is population growth. They estimate that by 2060 the south’s population will increase 40-60%, meaning a decline in forest cover and an increase in restrictions that could complicate the ability to manage forests. Climate change is another contributing factor to the changes in the south’s forests. Average annual temperatures will rise in the next 50 years, which could create problems for areas where water availability is a concern and possibly contribute to the spread of invasive pests.

Strong timber markets would encourage retaining forests rather than converting them to other land uses, but markets for traditional forest products aren’t optimistic. Bioenergy appears to be the best answer to help increase demand growth for timber, according to the report. Bioenergy demand would lead to more harvesting of softwood pulpwood, and thus help to offset the decreasing demand for softwood pulpwood for pulp and paper manufacturing.

According to the report, bioenergy uses could mean expanding the area of planted pine in the south. Under strong demand forecasts, planted pine could expand from about 39 million acres currently to about 67 million acres in 2060 (34% of the region’s forests).
While woody biomass harvest is expected to increase with higher prices, forest inventories would not necessarily decline because of increased plantations of fast growing species and intensive forestland management, according to the report.