Planted forests and natural regeneration in forest transitions: patterns and implications from the U.S. South
Forest transitions—shifts from deforestation to reforestation—are of increasing interest to scientists and policy-makers due to the importance of forest-related environmental benefits. Forest transitions occur through several pathways, including forest scarcity and economic development, each with different drivers and environmental outcomes. The relative roles of planted forests and natural regeneration in forest transitions are critical but rarely examined. We examined an ongoing forest transition in the USA using county-level data from 1968 to 2017 for 13 southeastern states to analyze the distribution and drivers of forest changes cover for both forest cover types. A forest scarcity pathway predominates in the region, occurring as planted forests have increased in a belt across the Deep South due to government tree planting incentives, urban influence, and demand for wood products. An economic development pathway is characteristic of other areas, where naturally regenerated forests have increased in association with lack of prime agricultural land and little demand for wood products. Where planted forest increased, it replaced both agricultural land and natural forest. We suggest that future forest transitions are more likely to be driven by government incentives and tree planting, and our results provide insight into the forest cover types and patterns we might expect to occur.