Much of the land in the United States and North America is rich and fertile. As the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” state of the landscape of the US, “…amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain!” When settlers from Europe came to this “new world” they were rewarded with beautiful views of lush greenery and rich soil. So what happened to the landscape of North America since the settlement of people from all over the world and are we at risk of losing the trees and fields that are left on this continent?
It can be difficult to grasp the sheer size of a country like the United States. If you take an early-summer flight from New York City to Los Angeles and look out the window along the way, you might be tempted to say that most of the country is full of green- green trees, green fields and farms, even green on most of the hills and bases of mountains. You will also notice some huge brown areas as well as rocky highlands. One thing that surprises many first-time flyers is how little of the country is covered by cities. You might expect that a country with over 300 million inhabitants living in hundreds of cities and thousands of towns would have to clear most of the land in the country for living space. But looking down from the sky what you will NOT see is a giant, paved metropolis spreading from coast to coast.
So how much of the US is actually covered by trees and how has that changed over time? The total land area of the US is about 2.3 billion acres. Since that number is big and difficult to picture, let’s use a graph. The chart, provided by the US Forestry Service (USFS) shows the number of acres of “forest” between 1760 and today. The term “Forest” as defined by the USFS covers most of the stands of trees in the country, excluding those in residential yards.
As you can see, before the major migrations of Europeans and the population boom that followed, the US was covered by a little more than a billion of the 2.3 billion acres of land. That’s about 46% of the total land area of the US covered in trees. By comparison, the land covered by forests at the start of this century was about 749 million acres or 33 percent. The amount of forested land dropped from the 1760’s to its low point around 1920, which coincided with the height of immigration to the US. But from the 1920’s onward, the amount of forest has leveled out and even increased slightly on average.
While the percentage of forested land changed more dramatically in some areas of the country than other (see chart 2), there are still many trees in the US, covering about one third of the country and the amount of trees remains fairly steady each year since new trees are planted as they are harvested. Of course, areas that were once forested may now be farmland and vice-versa, but there are still over 750 million acres of forests in the United States, and much more than that in Canada.
If you are interested in learning more about the forest use in the US, check out this site with more charts and data from the USFS.