Forest inventory could be important development tool

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Published: April 18,2005

Mississippi has missed out landing a couple of recent new oriented strand board (OSB) mills that went to neighboring states. Part of the problem was the lack of an updated forest inventory to assure potential companies that enough wood was available to provide raw material for the mill.

It has been approximately 12 to 13 years since the state has had a forest inventory completed. Recognizing that an accurate inventory is important to economic development, the Mississippi Legislature created the Mississippi Institute of Forest Inventory (MIFI).

“When companies call us wanting to know where the resources are, they want to know if we have an up-to-date timber inventory,” said Wayne Tucker, executive director of the MIFI. “Most are wood-using facilities. We have had 24 to 25 inquiries since we went into business a little over a year ago. We have had 11 inquiries from OSB mills.”

There is a strong demand and growing market for OSB, which is being used more as a substitute for plywood. Much of it is used as a roofing material, and it is also used in structural insulated panel (SIPs) construction. Recently the state lost out when OSB mills were announced for Thomasville, Ala., (Louisiana Pacific) and Alexandria, La., (Roy O. Martin Timber Co.).”

A lot has changed in the state’s forest inventory in the past 12 to 13 years.

In the late 1980s, the federal government’s CRP (conservation reserve program) paid owners to plant trees on about 500,000 acres in Mississippi. The Mississippi Forestry Commission has also had programs to encourage reforestation.

“There has been a lot of timber harvested, but a lot has been planted back,” Tucker said. “We just need to know where it is. We don’t know yet if there is enough timber for an OSB mill in Mississippi. Several large paper mills have shut down in recent years, so there might be excess volume out there. But we can’t say for certain if there is or there isn’t.”

Since MIFI has limited funding, it is tackling one-fifth of the state per year. Staff was hired in the first part of 2004, and currently is focusing on an inventory in 15 counties in Southwest Mississippi. Satellite remote sensing is being used to obtain information. Mississippi State University (MSU) developed the protocol used for the forest inventory work.

“Mississippi State did lots of research to make this brand new technology available,” Tucker said. “We feel a great deal of gratitude to Mississippi State.

Satellite imagery has been around since 1972, but just now is becoming affordable. It is nice to be able to use the technology. In addition to forest biomass, we are also measuring forest health and are doing a forest fire litter survey to do some predictions on how severe the fires will be if we do have a fire.”

Other major changes afoot in the one of the state’s largest industries are the changing of the guard of top officials at the Mississippi Forestry Commission (MFC) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Gerry Farmer has retired as supervisor of the USFS in Mississippi, and is currently teaching economics at Belhaven College. And Jim Sledge, who has headed the MFC for the past 14 years, is retiring May 31. Sledge is the longest serving state forester in the state’s history.

The MFC is in the early stages of reorganizing to improve efficiency during a time of declining revenues due to budget cuts.

“We want to maintain the high quality of service to land owners by organizing to be more efficient,” said Harold Anderson, MFC external information officer. “We have a board of nine commissioners, which has appointed an advisory board to look at various aspects of our agency. Reorganization will be shaped by their opinions and impressions. We are working to get broad-based advice.”

The number of acres planted in trees in the state has continued to increase. There has also been a change in attitude about tree farming.

“The primarily reason for growing trees is still economic, but we have done surveys that have found people have a broader range of interest,” Anderson said. “The environment, recreational and aesthetic opportunities like personal enjoyment of the land are also becoming more important. Most of them still plan to harvest the trees, but they are more aware of the environmental and wildlife management opportunities provided by planting their land in trees. We as an agency are changing to meet those needs. We have a new stewardship program which provides landowners with more holistic management plans.”

Economically, the value of the timber harvest was up in 2004 for the second year in a row, said Dr. Bob Daniels, MSU extension forestry professor.

“We have been struggling through an economic downturn in forestry for three years, but that has begun to turn up — not in a real strong way, but it has happened,” Daniels said. “Timber prices peaked in the late 1990s after the spotted owl issue stopped a lot of logging in the Northwest, and then we saw prices correct between 2000 and 2003. During that time, the paper industry was in a recession. There was a real pullback in global demand for paper of all kinds, and an unprecedented string of paper mill and machine closings between 2001 and 2003. We had some paper mills in Mississippi close.”

That affected the price of timber in Mississippi.

“Pine saw timber peaked in 1999 at $441 per thousand board feet, fell to $385 per thousand in 2001, and came back up to about $408 per thousand in 2003. Now it is about $413, which from an economic standpoint is sustainable. That will support investments in pine forest management, for sure.”

For years, timber and poultry were neck-and-neck competing for being the top commodity produced in Mississippi. In recent years, poultry has averaged in value about $1.3 billion while timber averaged $1.2 billion.

“Poultry went over $2 billion last year, so poultry has kind of sprinted out ahead of us, you might say,” Daniels said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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