Spatial patterns of forest characteristics in the western United States derived from inventories.



In the western United States, forest ecosystems are subject to a variety of forcing mechanisms that drive dynamics, including climate change, land-use/land-cover change, atmospheric pollution, and disturbance. To understand the impacts of these stressors, it is crucial to develop assessments of forest properties to establish baselines, determine the extent of changes, and provide information to ecosystem modeling activities. Here we report on spatial patterns of characteristics of forest ecosystems in the western United States, including area, stand age, forest type, and carbon stocks, and comparisons of these patterns with those from satellite imagery and simulation models. The USDA Forest Service collected ground-based measurements of tree and plot information in recent decades as part of nationwide forest inventories. Using these measurements together with a methodology for estimating carbon stocks for each tree measured, we mapped county-level patterns across the western United States. Because forest ecosystem properties are often significantly different between hardwood and softwood species, we describe patterns of each. The stand age distribution peaked at 60-100 years across the region, with hardwoods typically younger than softwoods. Forest carbon density was highest along the coast region of northern California, Oregon, and Washington and lowest in the arid regions of the Southwest and along the edge of the Great Plains. These results quantify the spatial variability of forest characteristics important for understanding large-scale ecosystem processes and their controlling mechanisms. To illustrate other uses of the inventory-derived forest characteristics, we compared them against examples of independently derived estimates. Forest cover compared well with satellite-derived values when only productive stands were included in the inventory estimates. Forest types derived from satellite observations were similar to our inventory results, though the inventory database suggested more heterogeneity. Carbon stocks from the Century model were in good agreement with inventory results except in the Pacific Northwest and part of the Sierra Nevada, where it appears that harvesting and fire in the 20th century (processes not included in the model runs) reduced measured stand ages and carbon stocks compared to simulations.


Natural Resources and the Environment

Publication Date


Journal Title

Ecological Applications


Ecological Society of America

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Document Type



© 2007 by the Ecological Society of America.