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July 07, 2011   Email to Friend 

Tangled Timber Troubles Landowners
Jillian Clair

From left, Elmore County Forest Ranger Kenny Mehearg, landowner Jimmy Graham and Federation Forestry Division Director Steve Guy survey the damage to Graham's land.
In addition to loss of life and destruction of homes and businesses, the storms that tore across the state in April left Alabama forest landowners with 205,590 acres of tangled timber and $266 million in lost revenue.

Jimmy Graham, a Farmers Federation member and Elmore County landowner, said a large portion of his 180 acres of trees was damaged.

"The storm came through and just wrecked everything," Graham said. "We're out here surveying and doing the best we can to bring it all together and see what we can salvage and replant."

In most cases, it takes 40 to 50 years to grow trees before they are mature, said Steve Guy, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation's forestry division.

"This is a crop you don't grow every year," Guy said. "Even if you're able to salvage some of it, you're only going to get about one third of what it was worth. When something like this happens, you've lost a generation of work. It's tough and expensive to deal with."

Although timber isn't 56-year-old Graham's livelihood, he said he will have to adjust his retirement plans.

"I had planned on cutting this timber when I turned 62 and retiring," Graham said. "But now that I'm having to cut early and salvage, I probably won't be able to retire at 62, so we'll just keep plugging along and see what happens. Hopefully we'll be able to harvest again in 15 years."

Ninety-eight percent of the storm-damaged timber was on private land, and for landowners, finding someone to harvest downed timber can be difficult, mainly because it is dangerous, Guy said.

"You've got timber standing on top of timber in a lot of cases, and some of it may be bent and in a bind, so it's dangerous out there harvesting the timber," Guy said. "Most of your timber harvesting equipment is designed to harvest timber that's standing upright."

Because of hidden stress fractures that devalue the wood, sawmills are hesitant to take wood from damaged areas. Generally, Guy said, damaged timber becomes pulpwood and loses about two-thirds of its value.

Because of the state of the timber industry in the current economic climate, Guy said the industry would be fortunate to salvage even 15 percent of the downed timber.

"The timber economy is down substantially because the housing market has not recovered from the recession, and the pulp and paper industry has not seen much of a recovery as a result of the downturn as well," Guy said.

And if landowners are fortunate enough to salvage and sell some of the damaged timber, they are still faced with the cost of clearing the land and preparing it for replanting.

The Alabama Forestry Commission estimates it costs landowners about $350 per acre to replant, and the total cost of replanting has been estimated at nearly $66 million for Alabama landowners.

However, a recent adjustment of the load limit for hauling storm-damaged wood may help landowners get timber off their land and into the market more quickly.

In normal circumstances, the load limit for hauling wood is 80,000 pounds, but by obtaining a weight limit waiver, those transporting the wood can now haul up to 95,000 pounds on approved routes.

"The new load limit will help because in these hot, humid conditions, the wood will deteriorate much faster than in the fall," Guy said. "So the quicker we can get this wood out to market, the better."

To obtain a waiver, contact Ray Clifton at (334) 481-2130.

The devastation and economic impact the storms have had on forest landowners haven't gone unnoticed by Alabama leaders. Shortly after the storms, Gov. Robert Bentley organized a forest recovery task force that will help the forestry industry with salvage and recovery efforts.

Guy attended the task force meeting May 17 and was assigned to the Governmental Affairs and Forest Health and Reforestation Subcommittees within the task force.

The Governmental Affairs subcommittee will work with government officials to obtain funding to assist landowners with salvage and reforestation efforts.

The Forest Health and Reforestation subcommittee will work with nurseries, forest products companies, contract service providers and others to ensure an adequate supply of resources needed for reforestation efforts.

At the meeting, the task force discussed the request to the federal government for $66 million for reforestation efforts. The requested money for restoration would typically be drawn from the Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP); however, it is not currently being funded, so there is no immediate money available. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. is sponsoring legislation to fund the EFRP.

State Forester Linda Casey said she is also concerned about the increased risk of wildfires around the state.

Because of budget cuts and subsequent layoffs in 2010, Casey said Alabama has a shortage in firefighters, and the Forestry Commission expects the number of wildfires in the state to double because of the drought and downed timber.

"There are 12 million tons of fiber on the ground drying out--that's fuel," Casey said. "And most of that volume is going to remain right where it is."

The projected 2012 state general fund budget is almost $4 million short of the funding needed to adequately prevent and subdue wildfires, Casey said.

She wants to counteract the shortage by raising awareness among landowners.

"We're going to have an all-out fire mitigation campaign working with communities and landowners in the affected areas to raise awareness about the risk of fire and things they can do for little or no money that might help reduce their risk to both homes and forest property," Casey said. "We're trying to be more proactive than reactive."

Despite so much loss and risk, many landowners, like Graham, are staying optimistic about the future.

"Most of the landowners in Elmore County have a pretty positive attitude," said Kenny Mehearg, a forest ranger with the Elmore County Forestry Commission. "I think this area will rebound and be better than ever--they can come back and reforest their land and hopefully have a better future for their kids and grandkids."

Storm damaged forest land should be reported to the landowner's county Farm Service Agency office.

A list of FSA offices can be found at www.fsa.usda.gov or by calling (334) 279-3500. More information is available at the Alabama Forestry Commission website, www.Forestry.State.Al.US.



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