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Chapter Two: The State of the Environment - North America


 Forest extent, 1990 and 1995

(Click image to enlarge)

Source: FAO 1997a

North America is home to 13 per cent of the world's forests. While their area is increasing, their quality is still deteriorating

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).

 The Model Forest Program

The movement to establish sustainable forestry practices has gained momentum throughout North America. One outcome has been the International Model Forest Program, which originated in Canada in 1992. The objectives of this programme are to accelerate the implementation of sustainable development in forestry practices; to apply new and innovative approaches, procedures, techniques and concepts in the management of forests; and to test and demonstrate best sustainable forestry practices using the most advanced technology and forestry practices available.

In 1998, there were 14 Model Forests in North America, with 11 in Canada and 3 in the United States (Natural Resources Canada 1998). One of the successes of the Canadian programme has been building partnerships between aboriginal groups, industrial partners and educational institutions (International Model Forest Network 1997). Building these partnerships, however, proved more difficult than expected, and in some cases took more than two years (Natural Resources Canada 1997). Though there has been progress in developing sustainable forest management tools, there is little evidence of practical application. The challenge is thus to translate management decisions to on-the-ground actions (Natural Resources Canada 1997). The US Model Forest Program has focused on international outreach, developing internet materials and educational activities (International Model Forest Network 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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