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Forests growing back in U.S. face man-made tests

This problem has no easy fix. One idea is to reintroduce the cougars and wolves that kept deer populations in check before they were hunted out of existence in the East.

"Mountain lions, they do eat people every once in a while," said John Laundré of the Eastern Cougar Foundation. He says the risks would be outweighed by the ecological benefits. "Secondhand smoke kills more people than mountain lions," he said, "and yet we're willing to sit in a smoky bar."

So far, government officials are leery of that approach.

Invasive species are another threat -- bugs and blights and blistering diseases introduced to the Eastern woods by people. These already changed the face of the forests in the 20th century, killing off the chestnuts and elms that once dominated some areas.

Now, despite efforts to stop such bugs at the border, or to keep them from spreading to new forests, an "ash borer" drills D-shaped holes into ash trees. The Asian longhorned beetle burrows fatal tunnels in a tree's bark.

Already, scientists say, the Eastern forest is shrinking -- between 1997 and 2007, it was reduced by 1.4 million acres, an area larger than Delaware.

"Unlike corn and cotton," said Craig Hanson of the World Resources Institute, "houses and highways are permanent crops."

The erosion of the forest has come despite new government programs, launched in the decades after the first Earth Day in 1970, that used federal money to preserve privately owned woods. Some programs plant new trees on old farmland, another pays to buy the land itself, or pays for "conservation easements" to guarantee it remains a forest.

But tens of millions more dollars are needed in funding, especially to provide corridors of preserved land for plants and animals to migrate as they adapt to climate change, said Jad Daley of the Trust for Public Land. "All that momentum is about to start to turn back the other way."

Maryland provides a test case in the difficulty of saving the Eastern forest by any means.

In 1991, the state passed a law requiring developers that cut down forests to either plant new ones or pay a fee that the state would use for tree-planting. Despite these efforts, the state loses about 1,500 acres of forest a year. The problem: Maryland has difficulty finding enough free land for new forests.

"The good Lord's not making any more land, and a lot of the land out there is already spoken for," said Steven W. Koehn, director of the Maryland Forest Service.

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