Forest Sustainability & Wood Energy in the United States

US Forests

The United States is home to 7.5% of the world's forests.  The US has a long history of forest stewardship with 750 million acres, or 303 million hectares, of forest land.  (By comparison, the entire European Union has a combined 180 million hectares of forest land.) Almost half of US forest land is held in public trust by federal and state government entities.

The USDA Forest Service (USFS) is responsible for sustaining the health, diversity, and productivy of the US's forests.  USFS maintains the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program (FIA) which routinely measures and monitors forest growth, forest inventory (volume of trees per acre), and forest carbon stocks across the US.

According to FIA data, the US's forest resources have increased over the last 100 years and forest carbon stocks have doubled since the 1950s, despite a tripling of the US population, record commercial and urban development, and devastating forest fires.  This is thanks to both strong environmental protections, as well as strong markets for forest products which place high value on sustainable forest management, afforestation, and reforestation.

US Environmental Protections

The US has a variety of stringent environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air Act.

States in the US Southeast have also developed forest best management practices (BMPs), which provide guidelines to forest landowners and trained loggers for compliance with US environmental protections and laws.  Violation of BMPs results in hefty fines and even jail time.

Sustainable Forestry in the US Southeast

The US Southeast, where the wood energy industry is based, has seen forest inventory double since the 1950s.  Less than 4% of the forest resources in the region are harvested yearly for forest products.  

Across the southeastern region, over 85% of forestland is owned by small, private family landowners.  Many of these landowners manage their lands as working forests, or forests that are carefully managed to sustainably supply a variety of forest products industries.  Long-term management and harvesting decisions are based on the sawtimber industry, which uses the highest-value wood.  Lower-value wood, which does not meet the specifications for sawtimber, can be used for furniture, paper, packaging, bioenergy, and other industries.

Strong markets = strong forests.  Markets for forest products provide financial incentive for landowners to continue replanting and sustainably managing their lands.  Without this financial incentive, landowners may convert their lands to something more lucrative, such as agriculture, or commercial development.  Science shows that demand for wood results in increased forest cover and forest inventory, not less.  Recent research has also shown that a lack of demand for biomass could actually lead to a decrease in forested area and forest inventory in the US South.

In its 2019 report on land change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognized that sustainable forest management strategies that yielded a variety of forest products, including bioenergy, were the most effective for preventing land use change and maintaining or increasing carbon storage.

Congressman Westerman (Arkansas), a forester and engineer, discusses the importance of forest products markets for US forest health and growth.


US Wood Energy Industry

Wood removals for the wood energy industry make up less than 0.1% of forest inventory in the US Southeast each year.  Wood energy manufacturers sit at the bottom of the value chain, using lower-value wood that is unused or undersold in the local market.  Markets for this wood help forest landowners clear their lands for replanting and provide a more efficient use for wood that has been removed from the forest as part of (or in preparation for) a sawtimber harvest. There is currently a surplus of lower-value wood in forest markets across the US Southeast, which is expected to continue for the foreseable future.

Wood energy is sourced from: tops of trees and large limbs, crooked or diseased wood, sawdust and other residue material, and thinnings (also called pulpwood or roundwood), .  Thinnings are wood that is removed from the forest prior to a sawtimber harvest to allow the remaining larger, stronger trees more access to nutrients from the soil and sun, making them more ideal for the sawtimber industry.  Thinning is a standard sustainable forest management practice that has been employed in the US for decades, and is also an important fire and pest prevention method.  The pulpwood that results from thinning is used in a variety of markets, including paper, bioenergy, and others.

To demonstrate sustainability, USIPA members hold sustainable fiber sourcing and chain of custody certifications from internationally-recognized forest certification schemes such as PEFC, FSC, SFI, SBP, and others.  These certifications require routine audits of the supply chain from independent, third-party auditors and mitigation of any identified risk areas.  This audit report, plus carbon emissions data from manufacturing and transport, is submitted to regulators across Europe and must comply with EU and Member State timber regulations and climate laws.

Wood used for the wood energy industry is <0.1% of forest inventory in the US Southeast each year.

Forestry and Jobs

The US forest products sector in total employs almost 1 million Americans and represents 4% of the US GDP.  As part of this sector, the wood energy export industry supports 5,000 jobs annually throughout the supply chain.

USIPA members have invested over $2 billion in the US Southeast over the last decade in rural areas where manufacturing jobs and infrastructure are needed most.  Our members export 7 million metric tons of wood pellets per year from port facilities on the southern East coast and the Gulf coast.

For more on the industry's impact on local communities, see our 'support for biomass' page.

quick facts

The US contains almost 1.7 times as much forest land as the entire European Union.

The total amount of carbon stored in US forests has doubled since the 1950s.

Forested land in the US saw a net increase of 12 million acres (4.8 million hectares) between 2005 and 2015.

The US Southeast has a growth-to-drain ratio of 1.8, which is higher than the US's national 1.5 average.

Less than 4% of the forest resources in the US Southeast are harvested for forest products each year.

The wood energy industry makes up less than 0.1% of total forest inventory in the US Southeast.