Kansas forest acreage decreases for first time in 81 years, report says

Trees near the Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie on Oct. 5. 2014. (Archive photo by Vail Moshiri | Collegian Media Group)

Kansas’ forest acreage decreased for the first time in 81 years, according to the 2016 Forests of Kansas report.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Kansas Forest Service at Kansas State track changes in size and condition of the state’s forestland, as well as how much of Kansas is forested and with what types of trees.

Forestland decreased from about 2.53 million acres in 2015 to about 2.48 million acres in 2016. Despite this, the overall growth rate continues to be positive.

In a K-State Research and Extension news article, Bob Atchison, rural forestry coordinator at the Kansas Forest Service, said the cause of the decrease is unclear, though the purposeful removal of trees encroaching upon grasslands and the conversion of forestland into cropland may have contributed to the loss of nearly 46,000 acres of forested areas.

According to the report, just six types of forest occupy 74 percent of all forestland in Kansas.

The report defines forestland as land with at least 10 percent canopy cover of live trees, or as land that no longer has canopy cover but is not developed for non-forest uses. The area with trees must be at least one acre and 120 feet wide.

However, much of the tree cover in the Great Plains is configured in narrow, linear strips that do not meet the size requirements to be considered forestland.

Natural resource agencies recognize the lack of available information on this type of resource, referred to as “trees outside forests,” or TOF.

The data in the 2016 reports reveals that there are 1.3 million acres of TOF in addition to the 2.5 million acres of forestland in Kansas.

According to the report, TOF are a critical resource that offer a wide range of benefits, such as preventing erosion, serving as riparian buffers, providing wildlife habitats and protecting structures and livestock from harsh weather.

Sam Hubbard, senior in agribusiness, said keeping forestland levels as a high priority is a challenge as the demand for paper-based products increases.

“Trees and foliage are fundamentally needed for humans and animals to survive, so it needs to be a top priority before too much forestland is lost and cannot be recovered,” Hubbard said.

The report shows that Kansas forests contain 838 million live trees and nearly 3.3 billion cubic feet of net volume, with 52 percent of all trees being one of five species: hackberry, American elm, Osage orange, eastern redcedar and green ash.

The large number of eastern redcedar trees emphasizes its invasive encroachment on grassland. Hackberry and American elm are examples of shade-tolerant trees that can dominate many of the closed-canopy forests in Kansas, which suggests a need to reduce the density of forests through thinning, prescribed burning and timber harvest, Atchison wrote in the report.

Atchison said these practices would allow more sunlight to reach forest floors, encouraging the growth of oak, walnut and other trees that require full sunlight to thrive.

Hubbard said that, to many, it seems like forestlands are going away for good. However, when people actually look at information like the Forests of Kansas report, they can see that a sudden decrease in forestland levels doesn’t always mean there is a massive problem. It just means that research needs to be continued, Hubbard said.

“As we develop further both structurally and technologically, it is imperative that as a society we stay aware of the levels we are currently at and where we are heading,” Hubbard said.