Forestry Profile

By Dan Burden, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University,

Revised August 2012 by Malinda Geisler, AgMRC, Iowa State University.


Natural and managed forests are one of the most important components of the Earth’s living and climatic systems. Around the world, forestry and the forest-products industry are of major economic importance to rural livelihoods

Forestry is the means by which trees can be produced as a renewable resource for wood or biomass for direct timber sales, production of trees for ornamental plantings or woody material for composite products or for use as a combustion energy source. Integrated into forest management plans may be other resource-management and asset-generation or asset-recovery options. These may involve revenue generation from hunting lease sales, government-sponsored conservation programs, tourism from winter sports access, syrup or mushroom production for food products, educational activities and other strategies.


The United States contains roughly 750 million acres of forested land, and almost 430 million acres, or 60 percent, of that land is privately owned. Those privately owned forests supply over 90 percent of the wood harvested in the United States for the construction of homes and the manufacturing of furniture, paper and other wood products. Federal forests supply only 2 percent of the wood used by the forest products industry.

The sale of U.S. forest products (not including Christmas trees and maple products) and the number of farms selling them increased between 2002 and 2007. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture (2009), over $595 million of forest products were sold from 47,603 farms. The top five producing states that year were Georgia, $53.6 million; Alabama, $44.2 million; Mississippi, $40.3 million; South Carolina, $27.5 million; and North Carolina, $25.1 million.

Forest resources, tree plantations and similar ecosystems usually are managed using scientific techniques. To re-forest a natural area or establish a plantation, selection of species and subspecies varieties, either in “pure” single species stands or mixed-species systems, means selecting genetic stock with the proper microclimatic adaptation and disease resistance. Then the forester must employ skill in the proper handling of seedlings, stand establishment and protection, and management practices that include pruning and thinning, controlled burns and managed extraction of the desired biomass of timber. A number of trade organizations, state and federal government agencies, university extension researchers and private consultants are available to assist with program planning and problem solving.

Management and preservation are important issues regarding America’s forest systems. Forestry is an arena of applied scientific analysis, field-craft technique, satellite telemetry and related environmental monitoring. A related science of managing trees, whether propagating them, managing disease outbreaks or designing plantations, is called silviculture. Silvicultural management once primarily concerned itself only with board feet of pulp wood for paper production or harvestable saw logs for lumber. Today silvicultural forestry must encompass renewability issues, watershed management, recreational and wildlife management issues, and community and natural area aesthetics. Today’s trained forester is an educated environmental scientist trained in botany, plant genetics, climatology, entomology, hydrology and soil science, as well as having interdisciplinary skills that usually encompass complex systems management and socio-political environmental studies.

The importance of the sustainability of these resources and the human and non-human communities depending on them have overriding economic, environmental and social implications. For this reason, most forestry production is highly regulated and management programs should be carefully constructed. In many cases, also an integral part of any operation are the stewardship regulations and programs that stress third-party certification systems that provide independent verification of sound management practices.

Recently, environmental scientists have recognized that all forests, including the treed and treeless boreal tundra, are fantastically huge reservoirs of sequestered carbon. This carbon predominantly is in the form of cellulose-comprised living or dead plant material. When liberated, through direct human activity, global warming (permafrost elimination) or natural processes (forest or range fires, biological activity), it becomes atmospheric carbon-dioxide gas. The release of this naturally “locked-up” carbon is viewed by some authorities to be a potentially catastrophic contributor to global warming. Concerns over sequestered and liberated carbon are increasingly carried over to the arenas of wood use and tree growth, whether biomass utilization for power generation, wood-waste disposal, forest or plantation stand management or the pro and cons of carbon tax credits.


The United States exported $7.8 billion of forest products in 2011. The major categories of forest products exported that year included softwood logs ($1.5 billion), hardwood lumber ($1.4 billion), softwood lumber ($973 million) and hardwood logs ($638 million). Canada was the largest buyer of U.S. forest products, purchasing $2.26 billion. China, Japan and Mexico are also major buyers of U.S. forest products.


In 2011 the United States imported forest products valued at $10.8 billion. Nearly $3.0 billion of softwood lumber was imported, $1.2 billion of builders carpentry and nearly $1.2 million of hardwood plywood. Canada was the leading supplier, providing forestry products valued at $5.1 billion. China and Brazil were the second and third largest suppliers of forestry products for the United States.


According to the Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory, lumber production began a downward trend in the mid 2000s. In 2004, the production of hardwood lumber peaked at 69,187 thousand cubic feet, and a year later, production of softwood lumber peaked at 27,562 thousand cubic feet. They speculate that this downward trend in lumber production reflects the recent economic downturn, and once economic conditions have improved, lumber production will again increase.


Forest Products Laboratory, Forest Service, USDA.

Global Agricultural Trade System, Foreign Ag Service, USDA.

Sales of Forest Products, Income from Farm-Related Sources: 2007 and 2002, 2007 Census of Agriculture, National Ag Statistics Service (NASS), USDA, 2009.

 Links checked September 2013.