World Resources Institute launches to map out environmental data from last 35 years in U.S. southern forests

WASHINGTON , March 3, 2010 (press release) – A new online system that maps a rich trove of environmental data of southern U.S. forests onto satellite images from the past 35 years was launched today by the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The system, located at, highlights risks to these forests such as pest and pathogen outbreaks, active wildfires, potential climate change impacts, and forest conversion to suburban development – the leading cause of southern U.S. forest loss in recent decades. The system also maps other features such as the region’s protected areas and forest ownership.

“ is a first-of-its-kind one-stop shop for map-based information about southern forests,” said Craig Hanson, director of WRI’s People & Ecosystems Program. “We have pulled together the power of GoogleEarth, Microsoft’s Bing Maps, NASA satellite images, ESRI technology, and a wide variety of forest data to raise awareness about the benefits of southern forests and the challenges they face.”

The system is the first step in a multiyear WRI project, Southern Forests for the Future, aimed at helping landowners, conservation organizations, and others ensure the ability of these forests to continue providing a range of benefits – called “ecosystem services” – to people.

“At a time when the world is concerned about climate change, freshwater availability, the economy and jobs, southern forests are part of the answer,” said Jonathan Lash, president of WRI. “The pattern of forest cover loss in this region has been acres here and acres there. Continuous but dispersed change often goes unnoticed. This new online system addresses that.”

Stretching from Texas to Virginia and from Kentucky to Florida, the southern U.S. forests are among the world’s most biologically diverse temperate forests. Though they comprise just two percent of the planet’s forest cover, they underpin hundreds of thousands of jobs and produce more pulp for paper by volume than any single nation – other than the entire United States.

In addition, they supply other ecosystem services, such as watershed protection, recreation, and carbon storage.

“A lot of focus in global climate change discussions to date has been on tropical rainforests,” said Susan Minnemeyer, a WRI senior associate. “But U.S. forests are important too. When domestic forest acreage declines, the nation’s carbon sink shrinks.”

The future of these forests mostly rests in the hands of private landowners. Approximately 27 percent of southern forest acreage is held by companies and financial institutions while another 60 percent is owned by individuals and families. But three-quarters of these family forests are owned by people 55 years of age and older. A generational transfer is on the horizon.

“In many ways, the next 20 years will shape the fate of southern forests,” said Todd Gartner, manager of Conservation Incentives at the American Forest Foundation. “Surveys indicate that most families want to pass their forests on to the next generation. However, with increasing development pressure, market-based incentives are needed to ensure that private forests remain as forests.”

WRI’s new online mapping system can help forest landowners in the South see the history of their forests through satellite images and better understand the forces of change affecting their properties. It also showcases examples of successful approaches for owners who want to retain their forests.

“ will be really helpful when engaging a community and working with local landowners regarding forest conservation and sustainable management,” said Tom Bancroft, chief scientist at the Audubon Society. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, satellite images and a good map are worth 10,000.”

“We hope the site will raise awareness about the economic and environmental benefits of southern forests and put important information at people’s fingertips,” said Patricia Pineda of Toyota, which is sponsoring WRI’s work as part of the company’s commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative.

“We were thrilled that Toyota and WRI committed to launch at the Clinton Global Initiative’s Annual Meeting last year,” said Robert S. Harrison, CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative. “We hope this site will empower more and more people to appreciate southern forests and the benefits they provide to people in the region and beyond.”

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