Exurbanization – the movement of people out of cities and suburbs onto lands farther out – is leading to new housing developments that contribute to fragmented forests.
In Louisiana, that’s primarily happening on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain as people move north from New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.
"This is a real challenge to deal with," said Dr. Mike Dunn, a resource economist with the LSU AgCenter. "Our best approach is education – helping people come up with solutions."
One aspect of the educational process was the Louisiana Natural Resources Symposium, which was held Aug. 13-14 in Baton Rouge.
The program developed by the LSU AgCenter’s School of Renewable Natural Resources brought national and international experts to a day-and-a-half meeting that addressed various aspects of forest fragmentation.
Topics included fragmentation’s effects on water quality, animal species, forest management and rural society, as well as land ownership.
The program was designed for people in the business to learn what’s happening and to hear about some of the measurable effects scientists are seeing, said Dr. Todd Shupe, who is in LSU AgCenter’s Forest Products Development Center and was one of the organizers of the symposium.
Dunn said forest fragmentation and exurbanization are challenges the LSU AgCenter is addressing through education – both for individuals involved in the forest industries and for people moving from cities into rural areas.
The LSU AgCenter expert said fragmentation is often driven by the division of land among heirs when a landowner dies. This often creates absentee owners who may not understand forest management.
"We need to provide information and education to help them devise a plan for the future to make the land work for them," Dunn said. "We need a manageable-sized forest – not broken pieces – to help maintain both the ecology and economic viability of our forested ecosystems."
The economist said urbanites moving into forested areas also need to learn more about management and sustainability of those systems.
"Their expectations of what forests should look like do not necessarily mesh with the goals of the actual owners of the forest," Dunn said. "When people buy a lot and build within a forested system that they don’t own, they have to realize it’s not their woods.
"When landowners thin or cut down their trees, that’s when the problems start," he added. "Managed forest systems don’t stay the same. They’re constantly changing."
Changing forests in Tangipahoa Parish was one of the reasons that brought Keith Frazier to the symposium.
A consulting forester in Kentwood, Frazier said the Northshore area is losing timberland day by the day. Land that has been harvested is "not going back to timber."
Craig Loehle of the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement Inc. in Naperville, Ill., talked about how forest "islands" surrounded by pasture, farmland or developments are causing a number of animal and bird species to decline because the woodlands aren’t large enough to maintain a population. They’re too small for viable habitat.
Fragmentation caused by development is "creating patchy holes in forests," Loehle said. "Homes and golf courses can affect forest diversity."
He cited habitat change, domestic predators (mostly cats), introduced species and reduced hunting as factors contributing to changing habitats. For forest landowners, development leads to increased transportation costs, increased management restrictions, changing aesthetics and traffic problems.
Ownership transfer can lead to fragmentation or accumulation, said L. Keville Larson, chairman of Larson & McGowin Inc. forest managers and consultants in Mobile, Ala.
"Any time land changes hands, it’s going to someone who wants it more or may take care of it better," Larson said. "We’ve had fragmentation since Adam."
Society determines if use can change through laws and regulations, he said.
"Public policy would be to make forest landownership attractive and keep Louisiana’s forest industry financially healthy," Larson said. "Some fragmentation and parcelization is natural and needed to provide for the nonforestland needs of a growing population and to provide the opportunity of forestland ownership to a large part of the population."
Fragmentation is a problem or an opportunity, depending on where you live and how you earn a living, said Harry L. Haney Jr., emeritus professor of forestry at Virginia State University in Blacksburg, Va.
"As a society, can we afford to keep land in forests if it has a higher use?" Haney asked. "If you want to allow landowners options so they don’t fragment their land, pay them."
Haney cited such factors as aesthetics, clean water, clean air and animal habitat as reasons for forestlands to be maintained, even in the face of urban sprawl.
"Fragmentation reflects economic adjustment at the margin to accommodate growth," he added. He suggested society might reward landowners for maintaining open spaces.
By the end of the symposium, Louisiana forest industry representatives came away with an expanded understanding of the challenges of fragmented forestlands on the state’s forest industry.
"The program spoke directly to lay people, everyday foresters interested in the topics," said A.W. Reed of GR Forestry Inc. in Amite. He added that the program met requirements for continuing education for certified foresters.
The meeting provided the latest information on up-and-coming forest issues, said Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association. It allowed attendees to interact with colleagues and leaders from around the country.
"We heard about things that will change practices as we know them today – insights in cutting-edge issues that affect forestry in Louisiana," Vandersteen said. "The speakers helped us understand how to manage fragmentation and take advantage of new uses of land."