Strewn in gnarled piles from Florida’s Gulf Coast up through South Georgia, the livelihood of timber farmers is on the ground. And, after the ravaging buzz saw of Hurricane Michael in early October, it will be a while until they begin to bounce back to prominence.
Michael’s path carved though a part of the state where Floridians are most reliant on timber. More than 2.8 million acres of timber were damaged by Michael’s powerful 155 mph winds.
Almost 347,000 acres in Bay, Calhoun and Gulf counties — where Michael made landfall — suffered 95 percent damage, categorized as catastrophic in a post-storm report by the Florida Forest Service. That’s $1.289 billion in damage to an industry that contributes $25 billion annually to Florida’s economy and accounts for 124,000 jobs.
Nestled just inland where the monster storm made landfall as a Category 4 storm, Liberty County is one of four in the state that is classified as critically dependent on the timber industry, where it represents over 20 percent of the workforce, according to a 2017 report by the Florida Forestry Association.
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Calhoun is one of seven classified as very dependent, with more than 10 percent of total employment, Franklin and Gadsden are moderately dependent with more than 5 percent of the workforce involved in the industry.
In all, 516,673 acres were damaged in Liberty County. More than 1.04 million acres suffered severe damage in Bay, Calhoun, Gadsden, Gulf, Jackson and Liberty counties.
More than 1,600 people in Liberty County work in timber. It makes up half the workforce. In 2016, 518,714 tons were removed from forests there, totaling more than $322 million.
It’s a big business and Michael’s clear-cutting could continue to hurt people’s livelihoods for years to come.
“A lot of people are unable to work. A lot of people have lost their jobs. The logging industry looks like it got turned upside down,” said Liberty County Commissioner Jim Johnson after finishing lunch at the Apalachee Restaurant.
“It’s just a trickle-down affect that could affect the economy of this county tremendously in the future,” he said.
Heading out into the desolation of the Apalachicola National Forest, it’s easy to see what Johnson means. Entire stands of towering pines, that once were prime for lumber, poles and pulpwood, are damaged or toppled.
Lumber mills — there are three large-scale operations in Liberty and neighboring Calhoun counties — are inundated with whatever wood can be salvaged.
If the wood is damaged in any way, it loses its market value nearly instantly. That’s for two reasons, said Gadsden-Liberty County Forester David Findley.
One, the people that are cutting timber in the wake of the storm are going after large-scale, high dollar hauls and not your everyday growers who may have tracts of less than 100 acres, the majority of the people Findley works with.
Second, trees with broken or damaged fibers aren’t appealing from a quality standpoint.
“Most of the timber is going to lay on the ground and not be salvaged,” said Findley, who is an agent for the Florida Forest Service. “It’s basically a ticking time bomb to where it’s not worth it to get it all up. They’re trying to cherry pick the good stuff.”
Mills in areas hit hard, like in Panama City Beach, Hosford and Blountstown, may not be in operation until the spring or may already be saturated with wood salvaged immediately after the storm, Findley said. That forces people to try and find other places to take their trees in the hopes of salvaging what they still have.
It’s a harsh reality for people who may have been banking on their timber for retirement or family investment.
“I’ve got people crying in the passenger seat saying they’re getting ready to retire in the next few years and they don’t know what to do anymore,” Findley said. “It’s salvage what you can. You’re going to have 10 years window of no harvesting. We’re trying to assist the landowners as best we can, but I don’t think there is a silver lining for some of these landowners.”
The main focus right now is helping people clean up and replant trees. Findley said there is help through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Forest Restoration Program.
Pine reforestation in Florida could cost upwards of $240 million and result in job loss for 15 to 20 years down the road.
State Sen. Bill Montford, who himself has a tract of timber land in Liberty County, said the impacts of Michael on the timber industry of North Florida would be felt generationally.
“Cotton, soy and peanuts, you plant the crop and hopefully you have a good return,” he said. “Timber takes 20 to 25 years before you begin to have a return on that investment.”
People’s livelihoods are on the ground. If they’re lucky enough to be able to salvage the timber, the price at market is at an all-time low, likely half of what it was pre-storm.
“A lot of timber on the ground is going to the mills for pulp that would have been a far more lucrative product,” Montford said. “In a lot of cases you have people who were depending on a small stand of timber for their retirement. They wake up the next morning and its gone.
“They’re just about at a panic level. What do we do? How do we deal with this?”
Montford said at the legislative level, there have been discussions with Senate President Bill Galvano who asked lawmakers to devise possible solutions to the financial constraints the storm has put on North Florida.
“We’ve got $3 billion in reserves for a rainy day. I’m telling him it’s raining,” Montford said. “The sun is shining but it’s raining.”
In the long term, more troubling than the downed timber is the impact that disease and insect invasion can have after it moves from easily accessible downed trees to ones that remain healthy.
Piles of souring wood make great habitat for Ips beetles, Southern pine beetles and turpentine beetles.
Findley suggested that landowners not able to get their trees to market begin to remove them from stands or burn them before spring. He also encouraged thinning and good forest management to make the remaining trees as healthy as possible.
Time is of the essence in getting timber off the ground if it is to be salvaged. It doesn’t take long for fungi to cause bluing, which makes it less or even undesirable to saw mills.
“What’s going to happen in the spring time,” he said, “Is those beetles are going to find these stressed out trees and start feeding on them. If it’s not stressed, it won’t be a good site for them.”
By the time Michael moved into South Georgia, it was still a major Category 3 storm. Joe Butler Jr.’s 1,500-acre timber farm appeared to be right in the crosshairs.
It turned out that the trees of Camilla, Ga., were spared the major destruction in neighboring Decatur, Miller and Seminole counties.
But not all of them.
“This is a 175-acre tract and I’m guessing, over all, it’s a 25 percent loss in the whole tract,” Butler said on a longleaf pine restoration forest field tour in late November. “Near the pecan grove it’s more like 60 percent.”
Longleaf pines planted 18 years ago are bent sideways, the first planted on the property since Butler’s great great grandfather bought it in 1873 with gold. The stressed trees won’t be good for much, so Butler is working to clear the land and replant as soon as possible.
“They’ll never make poles, they’ll never make saw timber, which is the markets that we try to grow for,” he said. “It’s just not economical to keep them at this stage. Might as well sacrifice 20 years of growth and start over.”
The tour, which included officials from the Georgia Forestry Commission, Southern Company, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, several state agencies and local media, was intended to give a glimpse into a growing movement to return the longleaf pine’s prominence to its historic range.
Prior to the storm, Butler was negotiating sale prices of $48 a ton for saw timber. Now it’s selling for $7 to $11 a ton. The pulpwood market — where trees are ground to make cardboard and other paper products, dipped from about $14 a ton to as little as $2 a ton, not even worth the cost of gas to haul it to the mill.
He’ll bring in equipment to clean out damaged trees and burn them. Although Butler manages his land for the timber industry, he is keenly aware of the environmental conservation of animals that call pine forests home.
“That’s just more equipment in the woods, more damage, more gopher tortoise burrows that might be damaged, habitat that’s taken away that’s been groomed for 18 years to benefit the wildlife,” he said. “It’s devastating from a financial standpoint but also from a conservation standpoint. We have lost several hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sellable timber. At times it makes me want to cry.”
Butler’s stand is a fraction of the damage recorded across the state. The Peach State sustained damage on 2 million acres of timberland worth close to $762 million. His land is locked in a conservation easement, meaning it can never be sold off and developed. As a money maker, it is useful only as a timber producer.
To help, GFC is looking at producing 500 million extra pine seedlings this year to distribute to Georgia farmers.
Greg Pate with the American Forest Foundation said over the past 10 years his organization has started to look more closely at conservation work surrounding sustainable forestry and bringing back the longleaf pine ecosystem.
Hurricanes often change the timber market.
“The timber market always kind of crashes after a hurricane of this magnitude,” Pate said. “Markets always crash, salvage takes place, folks come in like us and federal and state agencies help landowners get forested back and the markets kind of recover.”
In some places market and growth turnaround may be quick, but along the southwest corner of Georgia, there is likely a long road to industry recovery.
“Depending on the area, it may be 15 or 20 years before some of those folks can harvest timber again,” he said. “In the meantime, we go in there and work with them and say let’s make this better than it was, let’s try to reforest with longleaf pine if it’s acceptable to you.”