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Forests are one of the most prominent features of North America, covering about 25 per cent of the land area (FAO 1997b). North American forests constitute a rich resource, providing economic and recreational benefits, as well as watershed protection, wildlife habitat, and many other ecological services. The 460 million hectares of forests in Canada and the United States which are managed for commercial purposes comprise about 13 per cent of the world's total (FAO 1997b).
The past 100 years have brought both gains and losses to North America's regional forest cover, with substantial regrowth in the eastern United States and Canada. Overall, the extent of forest cover has stabilized in many parts of the region.
The quality of North America's forests, however, has deteriorated. While the world's second largest expanse of intact, natural forest is in the boreal regions of North America, forests in the United States are becoming increasingly fragmented and biologically impoverished, invaded by exotic species, or lacking in the characteristics that support viable populations of indigenous species (Bryant and others 1997). GEO-1 mentioned the harvesting of high-quality, old-growth timber stands in the northern Pacific region, including the states of Washington and Oregon, which fuelled a spirited public debate over forest policy in both Canada and the United States. In the intermountain West, pine and mixed conifer stands are in an unhealthy condition as a result of decades of overgrazing, heavy harvesting and fire suppression (Council on Environmental Quality 1997).
There is increasing debate about the use of forests for commercial logging, recreation and conservation. An estimated 57 per cent of North American (including Mexico) forests are considered commercially productive (Commission for Environmental Cooperation 1999), and the forest industry directly and indirectly employs an estimated 1 in 17 Canadians (Natural Resources Canada 1998). North America is a leading producer and consumer of timber, pulp and newsprint, and is highly competitive in world markets for timber products. The forest products industry of Canada and the United States is technologically advanced, and capable of removing and processing timber with great efficiency.
Over the past ten years, the industry has achieved notable success in reducing water pollution from pulp and paper mills, and interest in sustainable forestry practices is growing. Changes have also been made to encourage greater public participation in forest management and to involve partners and interested groups in open and transparent decision making (Natural Resources Canada 1997). New forest community partnerships have been established among governments, industry, labour, environment groups, private woodlot owners, aboriginal people, academia and others in trying to achieve a more holistic approach to forest management that balances the environmental, economic, social and cultural demands placed on forests.
The next ten years may see an intensification of the debate over forest practices and the use of forests. Worldwide demand for forest products is expected to grow, increasing pressure for commercial production from North American forests. Recreational demands are also expanding, and in many areas may constitute a higher-value economic use of forests, one that is in principle compatible with conservation goals.
Global warming could move the ideal range for many North American forest species some 300 km to the north (Council on Environmental Quality 1997). The rate of climate change will influence the stress experienced by forest species and an increase in fires, droughts and pest populations would produce adverse effects on forest systems. Forest reserves, established to protect particular plant and animal species, may no longer be located in areas where the climate is hospitable to those species (Council on Environmental Quality 1997).
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