Northern Forest Futures Project

Soil and Water Conservation

[image:] water in a glass

Conservation and Maintenance of Soil and Water Resources

Soils are the fundamental resources enabling land to provide a wide array of benefits. Humans and wildlife alike rely on soils for the production of life-sustaining nourishment and shelter. Soil is important to society because it supports plants that supply food, fibers, life-saving drugs and other essentials and because it filters water and recycles wastes. 
Forested watersheds provide water purification, mitigation of floods and droughts, soil retention, and habitat maintenance. The quality and abundance of fresh water in lakes, wetlands, streams, and rivers determine aquatic and terrestrial species biodiversity.

Key Findings

  • Forest ecosystem productivity and function depend on soil and water resources. Forest and land-use management activities can significantly
    alter forest soils, water quality, and associated aquatic habitats.
  • Across the Northern States, 76 million people depend on public and private forests for high quality water supplies.
  • Thirty-six million acres (21 percent) of northern forest land is under Federal and State management.
  • For private forest lands, which account for most of the forest land area in the North, Forest Stewardship Management Plans are of particular value in helping forest owners manage their resources sustainably; excluding land held by the forest products industry, 10 percent of private acreage is managed under such plans, but the covered area for individual States ranges from <5 percent to >30 percent.
  • All Northern States except Minnesota have suboptimal conditions for one or more soil attributes on ≥50 percent of their survey plots; Delaware and Maryland have the largest number of plots with soil conditions that limit potential tree growth.
  • The 10 States with the highest levels of suboptimal soil conditions are all located in the East.
  • Only 2 of 551 northern watersheds have water supplies that currently are inadequate to meet societal demands, a number that is projected to increase substantially by 2060.
  • Watersheds with the potential to produce high quality water tend to be found in forested regions of the upper Midwest, New England, and along the Appalachian Mountains; watersheds with relatively low potential to produce high quality water are located in the Midwest.
  • State and Federal forest land area is expected to remain relatively constant for the next 50 years; however, expanding human populations are expected to place more pressure on public lands for freshwater supplies and other benefits.
  • Under a future of moderately growing population and rapidly growing income, urban areas are projected to increase by 78 percent and forest areas are projected to shrink by 6 percent.
  • Although total area of Federal and State forest land in the North is projected to remain stable through 2060, the relative area of 0.29 acres per person is projected to decrease to 0.23 acres per person due to increasing human population.
  • On average for all northern watersheds, the amount of water used to meet societal demands is projected to increase under most future scenarios; for most watersheds, supplies would remain adequate, but the number of watersheds with the potential for shortfalls likely would increase.
  • By 2060, the potential to supply high quality water is projected to decline for most watersheds in the North.
  • At a regional scale, climate projections had more impact on future water supply and stress than did land-use or population projections, but there were some exceptions for individual watersheds.

From Future forests of the northern United States, NRS-GTR-151, 2016.

Maps and Figures

[map:] Average annual water supply and stress index values in the North in 2010 and projected for 2060 under storyline A1B
Average annual water supply and stress index values—the proportion of the water supply being used to meet societal demands—for watersheds in the North in 2010 and projected for 2060 under storyline A1B
[map:] Changes in clean water potential index values projected under storylines A1B and A2
Changes in clean water potential index values projected under storylines A1B and A2

For additional detail, see Criterion 4: Conservation and Maintenance of Soil and Water Resources in the Future forests of the northern United States.