Owners of forest land along the Florida Panhandle and beyond are grappling with at least US$1.6 billion in timber losses after Hurricane Michael snapped and mangled trees across the region, according to state authorities. Source: Wall Street Journal
Forestry officials in Florida, Georgia and Alabama estimate the hurricane damaged more than five million acres of woodland in the region when it roared through this month.
The destruction marked a fresh blow to timber growers already saddled with historically low prices brought on by a glut of mature trees in the South. The storm hardly dented the oversupply. But it wiped out decades-old investments and triggered heavy cleanup costs for local timber owners, most of whom are individuals and families.
Forester Will Leonard said nearly all of his family’s roughly 8000 acres of Florida Panhandle pine were damaged. This includes 100-foot slash pine that could have fetched up to US$60 a ton as utility poles before the storm, but now might be worth US$2 to US$3 a ton as pulp.
Mr Leonard believes his family can reforest at least some of their timberland, but is worried many owners will be strained to recover from the costly damage to their land.
“These are working people who held on to it, and they were counting on that as either all, or a large part, of their retirement, and it’s just gone,” he said.
Landowners rarely carry insurance on timber because it isn’t cost effective. Some may be eligible for casualty loss deductions on their federal income taxes, depending on how much they invested in their timber, how long the trees have been growing and whether any money is spent replanting.
Southern yellow pine, which is sawed into lumber and pulped into paper and particle board, is one of the region’s top agricultural products.
Sunshine State growers alone are out about US$1.3 billion worth of wood as a result of the storm, according to Florida authorities.
“This is a catastrophic loss,” state Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said.
In Georgia, state officials say the lost timber is worth roughly US$374 million. Forestry officials in Alabama are still tallying lost value, but have identified more than 42,000 acres of forestland in the state’s southeast corner where damage ranges from modest to total loss.
Most owners simply have to salvage what wood they can while it is still worth something. Blue stain, brought about by fungi, can set in within about a month, and ruin saw logs. And it doesn’t take long for bugs and rot to take over.
“It’s hard to get in and work when you have trees laying around like toothpicks,” said Marshall Thomas, president of F&W Forestry Services, a firm that manages forests for landowners.
Growers will be fortunate to salvage 20% of the damaged trees, and those that make it to mills might fetch just 20% to 50% of their pre-storm value, said Chad Nimmer, a Georgia lawmaker who works in logging.
Wind-rattled wood usually won’t make the grade for top-dollar forest products, like utility poles and lumber, foresters say. It is more likely to be pulped or mulched, which returns far less.
Bill Montford, a Florida state senator whose family owns 100 acres of devastated forestland, said even old trees that are left standing still suffered damage.
“It’s questionable if you can use those from the damage inside,” he said.
The condition of local mills is another concern. It isn’t economical to carry trees too far from where they are grown, with weight limits on highways, slim margins and in-demand logging crews who are reluctant to spend too much time on the road.
WestRock Co said its Panama City mill, a likely destination for much of the downed timber, suffered substantial damage. The paper and packaging firm is working to get the line that makes facing for corrugated cardboard back to full production by mid-November. It will be at least six months before its pulp production is back to capacity.
Undamaged mills, on the other hand, may already be fully stocked from the summer logging season.
“We’re hoping they’ll be considerate and take as much of that damaged wood as possible,” said Dana Stone, an Alabama Forestry Commission official.
Even as new trees get planted, the storm could leave lasting scars across the rural landscape.
“Hurricane Michael was more than just economic loss,” said Mr Leonard, whose family has worked the Panhandle forests for five generations. “I’ve harvested trees that my great grandfather planted. There’s a connection to people in my family I’ve never known.”