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Region not exploited, says forestry specialist

Logging raises concerns, creates opportunities

A recent front page article in The New York Times said that timber companies have stepped up logging operations in the South where they face less regulation than in the carefully monitored forests of the Pacific Northwest.

According to the article, timber harvests in the South increased by 50% from 1977 to 1997 from 6.8 billion cubic feet to 10.2 billion cubic feet, and that the Southern states now account for two thirds of the timber harvested in the U.S. Harvesting has shifted to the South, the article said, because of relatively permissive environmental regulations.

Forestry officials in Mississippi said that the decline in harvesting on national forest lands in the Northwest due to environmental concerns associated with endangered species has created opportunities in Mississippi and other states while also increasing timber prices. And they disagree that forestry here is environmentally irresponsible.

“The tune being sung here is that the South is being exploited, and that is not the case at all,” said Bob Daniels, extension forestry specialist with Mississippi State University. “With the decline in harvesting in national forests in the West, that threw additional demand to the South. Contrary to being exploited, the South has really benefited from increased timber demand. Private landowners in Mississippi and other Southern states have benefitted nicely. Market prices in general have increased.”

Prices for pine sawtimber in the 1990s averaged about $200 per thousand board feet. In 2000 it had increased to $400 to $425 per thousand board feet. Daniels said the increased prices are one measure of the increased demand that has come to the South.

“I argue that has gone a long way towards increasing the wealth of the rural people in all the Southern states,” Daniels said. “So that is a good thing in my mind.”

The trend towards more harvesting from Southern forests has been going on for 40 to 50 years, and has been particularly apparent during the past 20 years. The U.S. Forest Service publishes a document every 10 years that looks at the status of the timber supply of the nation. Earlier reports predicted the South would become increasingly important to supplying the timber needs of the country.

A major question is whether Mississippi forests are sustainable, if enough trees are being planted to replace the trees being harvested.

“There is no way to definitely answer that question,” Daniels said. “We have a forest survey done periodically for all the Southern states by the Forest Service. The one we have for Mississippi was published in 1994, so we are due to have a new forest survey soon. Without firm figures like that to point to, in part it is speculation, an educated estimation. My own feeling about it is that we are not cutting more than we are growing. We are sustainable in part because the pine plantations are producing more than we thought they would. I think our forests are in relatively good shape.”

About 90% of state timber lands are privately owned and 10% are national forests.

Jerry Farmer, forest supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service in Mississippi, said timber harvesting on national forests in Mississippi has been declining because of the number of species that the Forest Service has to take into account. He said Southern National Forests have to abide by the same rules as National Forests elsewhere in the country, and have reduced harvesting as a result.

Figures show that the timber sale goals were 159 million board feet (mbf) in 1990, growing to 240 mbf acres in 1991, 215 mbf in 1992, 175 mbf in 1993, 160 mbf in 1994, 178 mbf in 1995, 200 mbf in 1996, 182 mbf in 1997, 165 mbf in 1998 and 159 mbf in 1999. The Forest Service is allowed to harvest within 92% to 95% of its goal. The Forest Service has 1.9 million acres in Mississippi, and local governments and school districts receive proceeds from timber sales in lieu of taxes.

Farmer said he has gotten calls from public officials who are concerned about the decline in logging revenues, but that the mission of the Forest Service is basically forest health and promoting multiple uses of the national forests that include recreation and hunting.

“Some logging is necessary to support those multiple use activities that we strive to protect,” he said.

In the Northwest, where most of the forest lands are owned by the federal government, there isn’t as much support for logging forests, said Harold Anderson with the external information and education office of the Mississippi Forestry Commission.

“Almost all the forest land in the Northwest is owned and controlled by the federal government,” Anderson said. “The reverse is true in the Southeast. Almost all the land in the Southeast is owned and controlled by private interests, mostly small landowners. Since people in the Northwest don’t own the forest land and don’t profit from management of land, they prefer non-consumptive uses such as recreation.”

Because people in the South own their lands, Anderson said they are more likely to look at it in a multipurpose context that includes recreation and money making.

“I think we have a much more even-handed approach to forest management in the South,” Anderson said. “We look at all aspects of it including commercial aspects. The Northeast is more single use: recreation. Individuals don’t own land and don’t have the concept of income that can come from land. They don’t have any vested interest in managing timber because they don’t own land.”

Anderson said forestry practices are less regulated in the South, and that is a good thing. He said environmental regulations are not burdensome, and the forestry industry has done a good job self policing itself and using best management practices to protect water quality by preventing erosion.

“We have tried to be proactive and do what is right rather than react and fight regulations,” he said. “We have a wise-use attitude. Landowners are going to do what is right.”

Anderson said the shift of logging to the South has benefitted more than landowners.

A lot of forest product industries from the Northwest have moved to the Southeast because of the accessibility of wood and labor, and nearness to East Coast markets.

Another point Anderson makes is that wood is the most widely used raw material in the world.

“It has to come from somewhere,” he said. “If we stop logging here, where is it going to come from? From South America, Asia and Central America where there is very little means of controlling environmental damage. Their mindset is more exploitation.”

The wood products industry in the Southeast has a vested interest in making sure that timber harvesting is sustainable. Anderson said if someone invests $100 million in a mill, they don’t want to go out of business by not having enough timber to supply the mill.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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