Assessment Plan Overview

Issue

Social, market, and biophysical dynamics continue to affect change in the South’s forest sector. Decision makers and the public at large need authoritative insights into anticipated changes and issues critical to the future of forests and the crucial benefits they provide to the region.

Mission

Inform forest sector decision makers and the interested public about observed trends, anticipated futures, and critical issues based on authoritative synthesis and interpretation of existing science, data and projections.

Background

In 2002 and again in 2012, the U.S. Forest Service, in cooperation with the Southern Group of State Foresters, led assessments of key issues regarding natural resources in the South. The 2002 Southern Forest Resource Assessment (SFRA), motivated by a broad debate regarding chip mills and sustainability, and the 2012 Southern Forest Futures Project (SFFP), motivated by accelerating urbanization, forest ownership changes and market dynamics, represent the latest two chapters in a long dialogue about the condition and dynamics of forest resources within the region. Taken together, these two assessments produced 42 technical reports on important resource issues using science synthesis, trend data, and explicit forecasts of future conditions. This “southern forest assessment library” has proven to be an effective means of interpreting the broad and varied scientific literature on topics relevant to the forestry in the South.

Why?

Recent changes in land use, forest disturbances, forest management, and forest product markets define increasing uncertainty about the future of the sector. While much of the assessment library remains relevant, new data, research results, and projection models allow for new insights into certain critical issues. We have selected three critical issues for the Southern Forest Outlook (SFO) based on their relevance and the availability of new scientific information or substantial change in conditions.

Plan

We propose to update the SFRA/SFFP using an approach that builds on previous assessment efforts, utilizes a public-facing process, and anticipates the need for ongoing updates. Our focus is on maintaining, expanding, and updating reports, projections, and data sets to continue to support information needs of natural resource decision makers and the interested public in the South. The SFO will produce products on a rolling schedule. This will substantially reduce the cost of assessment activities in any given year, increase the timeliness of products, and allow us to focus efforts and resources on the most critical issues.

The update would involve the following components:

  • Projection and trend updates will be based on new data for the past 10 years from authoritative sources. Updating SFFP projections will use the latest models and projections for the 2020 Resources Planning Act (RPA) Assessment. As for the SFFP, we will develop a set of scenarios from the RPA library based on the latest futures for population, income, climate and timber markets. This analysis will provide projections of a key set of variables that inform other issue analysis: (1) Land use change and forest area, (2) Forest conditions and vulnerability to change, (3) Forest product market activity.
  • Issue analysis SFRA and SFFP addressed a large number of issues identified through extensive public meetings and much of these analyses remain relevant. Through meetings with partners we have identified three issues to be addressed by the SFO: (1) Timber market structure and futures, (2) Forest-water interactions, and (3) Fire management. We will leverage projection and trend updates to inform the issue analysis. Further, we will work to (1) clarify questions with partners and publics (2) recruit teams best prepared to undertake the work, and (3) conduct science synthesis and data analysis to best address these questions.
  • Summary report: Information contained in the projection updates and issue analysis, combined with information from previous reports, will be used to summarize the status, trends and expected futures of southern forests. Key findings will define the scope and impact of most critical issues facing decision makers in the broad forest sector.

Information Delivery

One of two priorities for information delivery is the precise and thorough synthesis of relevant science and data to inform decision makers. The second priority is to support secondary and sub-regional assessments by other analysts. Issue and projection reports will support the former while readily accessible databases and map products will support the latter.

Process

Our work will be organized by the guiding principles of the previous assessment efforts. We will use a question-driven approach: each issue analysis will be organized by a set of specific questions. Issues, assessment questions, and analysis plans will be circulated for public input. Each issue update will be led by experts who will convene a team of scientists/analysts to conduct the work. All reports will be subject to peer and public review before being finalized and reviews will be available to the public. Projection updates will be developed by RPA Assessment specialists located within the Southern Research Station. A team for developing an internet platform for the assessment library will be assigned as the update commences. Most importantly, we will continue to communicate our intentions and engage in discussions within the broader community of groups interested in the natural resource issues of the South.

Looking to the Future

The Southern Forest Outlook will serve as a means of completing science synthesis and delivering science for practical application on an ongoing basis. As issues arise in the future and new science informs the issues, leaders can choose to use this process to update the public regarding natural resource implications. The Outlook will also provide a mechanism for updating the region’s public on projections and regional forest inventory trends that are regularly generated by the U.S. Forest Service RPA Assessment process.