America's Rural Forests Are Shrinking

The average distances between forests in the U.S. grew by 14 percent from 1990 to 2000 with the most dramatic increases occurring not in urban areas, as one might suspect, but in rural America. (Photo: Jereme Rauckman/flickr)

It’s easy — and completely logical — to assume that the further you move away from cities, the closer you’ll be to trees. And by trees, I don’t mean heavily trafficked public parkland with a few impressive stands here and there but large, remote tracts of forested wilderness. After all, they don’t call the rural countryside “the sticks” for nothing.

But as the assumption-twisting findings of a newly published report from researchers at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse show, it’s city dwellers, not those living in rural America, that enjoy closer proximity to forests. In other words, the sticks are becoming decidedly less and less stick-y as forests in rural areas disappear at a faster rate than forests located on the sprawl-prone fringes of major urban areas.

In fact, the report’s satellite data-studying authors concluded that the rural canopy is indeed slowly but surely retreating, with the average distance between any point in the United States to the nearest forest increasing by 14 percent — or about a third of a mile — between 1990 to 2000. In total, the U.S. has lost roughly 35,000 square miles — or 3 percent — of its forest-covered land since 1990, an area that’s about the size of Maine.

Even the study’s co-author, Dr. Giordios Mountrakis, an associate professor at ESF’s Department of Environmental Resources, was taken aback by the findings, which were published earlier this week in the scientific journal PLOS One. He calls the results “eye-opening.”

“The public perceives the urbanized and private lands as more vulnerable,” Mountrakis explains. “But that's not what our study showed. Rural areas are at a higher risk of losing these forested patches.”

Graphic showing forest loss in the United States from 1990 to 2000.
Graphic showing forest loss in the United States from 1990 to 2000. (Photo: Giorgos Mountrakis, Sheng Yang)

Rural America: Forests are 'getting further away from you'

So why then are forests in rural areas thinning out and altogether disappearing at a faster rate than their city-ringing brethren?

Although various factors come into play, co-author and ESF graduate student Sheng Yang addresses one primary reason for the trend. And it makes perfect sense.

More conspicuous and frequently more fussed- and fought-over, urban forested areas are frequently viewed as being, by default, more vulnerable than rural forests. As a result, forested land in urban areas, much of it privately owned, tends to garner significantly more conservation-related attention from citizen activists and lawmakers alike.

Meanwhile, many Americans assume rural forests to be “safe” from development and destruction and in need of less protection. Simply, we’re taking rural forests for granted. This, of course, is particularly dangerous during a time when the sitting presidential administration has made clear its desire to exploit rural public lands — lands previously believed to be sacred and off-limits — for drilling and other environmentally damaging activities

“Typically we concentrate more on urban forest,” says Yang. “But we may need to start paying more attention — let's say for biodiversity reasons — in rural rather than urban areas. Because the urban forests tend to receive much more attention, they are better protected.”

Additionally, Mountrakis and Yang found that the distance to and between forests is “considerably greater” in the western states. This goes against the prevailing hoary notion that the west is a wild ‘n’ woodsy place populated by denizens, who, when not brewing beer in their garages or shopping at REI, can be found frolicking in their heavily forested backyards. In reality, it’s East Coasters who enjoy closer proximity to large swaths of trees.

“So if you are in the western U.S. or you are in a rural area or you are in land owned by a public entity, it could be federal, state or local, your distance to the forest is increasing much faster than the other areas," explains Mountrakis. “The forests are getting further away from you.”

Forest patches going 'poof' spells trouble for wildlife

Despite the troubling trend that forests are “getting further away” from Americans (Westerners, in particular) living in rural areas, a public news statement released by ESF makes it clear that this increased distance “isn’t insurmountable for humans in search of a nature fix.”

Of greater concern to Mountrakis and Yang are disappearing forest patches. Not only does losing multiple small, isolated patches of forest have a more profound direst result on person-to-forest distances than the loss of acreage within larger forest systems, it also spells greater trouble for biodiversity and can have a larger-than-suspected impact on soil erosion, local climate and carbon sequestration among other things.

“Patches of forests are important to study because they serve a lot of unique ecoservices,” Mountrakis says. “You can think of the forests as little islands that the birds are hopping from one to the next.”

Essentially, as these little forest-islands disappear and the distance between them grows greater and greater, migrating birds — and other forms of wildlife — are finding fewer and fewer places to hop to.

“Distances to nearest forest are also increasing much faster in less forested landscapes,” explains Yang. “This indicates that the most spatially isolated — and therefore important — forests are the ones under the most pressure."