Global tree cover products are widely used in analyses of deforestation, fragmentation, and connectivity, but are rarely critically assessed. Inaccuracies in these products could have consequences for future decision making, especially in data-poor regions like the tropics. In this study, potential biases in global and regional tree cover products were assessed across a diverse tropical country, Costa Rica. Two global tree cover products and one regional national forest cover map were evaluated along biophysical gradients in elevation, precipitation, and agricultural land cover. To quantify product accuracy and bias, freely available high-resolution imagery was used to validate tree and land cover across these gradients. Although the regional forest cover map was comparable in accuracy to a widely-used global forest map (the Global Forest Change of Hansen et al., also known as the GFC), another global forest map (derived from a cropland dataset) had the highest accuracy. Both global and regional forest cover products showed small to severe biases along biophysical gradients. Unlike the regional map, the global GFC map strongly underestimated tree cover (>10% difference) below 189 mm of precipitation and at elevations above 2000 m, with a larger bias for precipitation. All map products misclassified agricultural fields as forest, but the GFC product particularly misclassified row crops and perennial erect crops (banana, oil palm, and coffee), with maximum tree cover in agricultural fields of 89%–100% across all crops. Our analysis calls into further question the utility of the GFC product for global forest monitoring outside humid regions, indicating that, in tropical regions, the GFC product is most accurate in areas with high, aseasonal rainfall, low relief, and low cropland area. Given that forest product errors are spatially distributed along biophysical gradients, researchers should account for these spatial biases when attempting to analyze or generate forest map products.
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