Hurricane Katrina Forest Recovery

As we work together to tackle the historic challenge that Hurricane Katrina has presented to the forestry communities of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, we hope that this blog will be a valuable resource and tool.

Wednesday, September 28

Katrina Effects on Lush Forests

Devastation is widespread since Katrina roared through. Broad swaths of longleaf pines, which grow so tall and straight they're often used for utility poles, lie uprooted, snapped in half or bent.
In the days to come, hundreds of thousands of Southern pine trees will be hauled to small-town mills to be turned into lumber, plywood and, if badly damaged or small, pulp for making paper. In the days after that, Southern businesses and homeowners will take those products — 2-by-4s, plywood sheets and wood for decking — and begin to restore the storm-battered gulf.

The Mississippi Forestry Commission says Katrina caused $2.4 billion of tree damage, more than half in commercial timber spread across 1.3 million acres. In the worst-hit areas, the coastal counties, almost half the timber may be damaged.

The destruction is a serious loss for one of the nation's poorest states. Forests cover more than 60% of Mississippi's land, and converting trees into wood and paper products provides jobs and tax revenue. Much of the land is owned by individuals in parcels of 100 acres or so.
Now the race is on to salvage as much as possible because a timber ailment known as blue-stain fungus, which thrives in the South's hot, humid climate, attacks downed trees. Timber with the fungus loses value and eventually becomes worthless. In Mississippi, so much timber is down that local forestry experts expect much of it to go to waste because there won't be enough loggers or mills to harvest it.

"There's a short period of time that we can get out there and salvage this," says Don Grimm, president of Hood Industries, a family-owned company in Hattiesburg, Miss., that employs 1,200 workers at four sawmills in Mississippi and Louisiana. Its Wiggins, Miss., plant lost its roof to the storm and isn't expected to reopen for at least a month.

Forestry consultant Joe Pettigrew says landowners like Brooke will be lucky to get a quarter of what their timber was worth before Katrina struck. "It's a grim situation," he says.

For now, Scott Twillmann, a market timber analyst at Forest2Market in Charlotte, says the South's power outages — which have hampered even undamaged mills — debris-covered roads and a shortage of loggers and equipment will hinder the salvage operations.

The odd part is, blue-stain fungus does not damage the timber's structural integrity — only its market appeal. Tom Harris, publisher of the Timber Mart-South price-reporting service, and a professor of forest resources at the University of Georgia, says builders shun the blue-tinged lumber. If the gulf region's overwhelming need for fresh lumber now erases that stigma, it will be a first.

"Once the blue stain gets in there, it significantly decreases the value of the timber. Eventually it becomes worthless," Twillmann says.

Harris predicts that the glut of fallen timber will benefit mill owners at the timber ranchers' expense, depressing the raw materials' price. At the retail level, he says, the effect is "almost reverse. Huge demand for lumber and plywood will drive up (retail) prices."

Two market leaders, Georgia-Pacific, a big mill company, and Home Depot, the retailer, both have pledged publicly to temporarily freeze lumber prices in the gulf at pre-storm levels.
One option: Chopping it all down

No doubt, the South's timber ranchers and mills will be at the forefront of the rebuilding effort.

Beyond the needs in much of Mississippi, the National Association of Home Builders estimates that "a large share" of New Orleans' 200,000 homes, about 60 miles to the west, were damaged beyond repair. It will all begin with timber, and then lumber.

Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama produce 6.5 billion square feet of wood panels a year, representing 22% of U.S. production, says the APA-Engineered Wood Association, a trade group whose members manufacture plywood, oriented strand board and other engineered wood products.

There will be huge rebuilding needs, all along the Gulf Coast. That is good news for the saw mills as they resume production. But the devastation to the forests will make a lasting dent on local ranchers, loggers and millworkers.

Grimm, Hood Industries' president, worries some mills may close eventually because so many trees were wiped out. "We can rebuild a mill pretty quickly. But you can't quickly rebuild a forest," he says. "Independent loggers are going to stay significantly busy in the short term, but eight months from now, when you get past this storm damage, is sufficient industry going to exist to support them?" Grimm asks.

That's a question many share. Pine trees planted now will take 30 years or more to mature. A lifetime of work to rebuild.

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