Introduction to Nontimber Forest Products
The plants and fungi harvested for their nontimber forest products (NTFP) are fundamental to the functioning of healthy forests and vital to the cultures and economies of the people of the U.S. Plants and fungi harvested as NTFPs provide food and medicine. In 2013, for example, people gathered more than a half million pounds of food from public forests across the nation.
The harvesting and use of forest plants and fungi is embedded deeply in the culture of the first people to inhabit the region. Many people who live here today also have profound connections to nontimber forest products.
Southern forests are a treasure trove of nontimber-forest species. The forest biological diversity of the southern U.S. provides an abundance of opportunities to harvest NTFPs.
Among the southern NTFPs are many of global value and uniqueness. For example:
- Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) berries from the forests of Florida, Georgia, and other coastal states are used as medicine.
- American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), with a natural range from Georgia to Canada and west to the Mississippi, is mostly harvested from only five southern states.
- The fruit of pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) are enjoyed by many residents who forage our forests for food.
Many southern NTFPs supply global markets and diverse industries. However, their full value in these economies is not well documented. Similarly, the impacts of harvesting NTFPs on forest biodiversity are not fully understood, impeding management decisions and actions.
For the most part, the economic and ecological contributions of NTFPs remain invisible and enigmatic. SRS research is revealing the ecologic and economic values of these products. Greater knowledge is needed to determine sustainable sourcing of these products and ensure their long-term viability.
Dr. Jim Chamberlain is an SRS research scientist with the Forest Inventory and Analysis program and a global expert on nontimber forest products management, production, and valuation. Chamberlain has worked in forestry and forest products management for more than 45 years, with much of that time spent working in south and southeast Asia and central Europe.
For the last 24 years, he has focused his research on the economic and ecological impacts of harvesting NTFPs, particularly food and medicine, in Appalachia, the southern region, and across the U.S.
Chamberlain has published extensively on NTFPs, including a comprehensive national assessment of NTFPs and climate change. He is leading the IUFRO Task Force on Unlocking the Bioeconomy and Nontimber Forest Products. The task force is examining the role of NTFPs in the bioeconomy, which refers to the immense value of plants and other biological materials that are used to produce goods or services. The task force includes more than 70 experts from over 25 countries.