One of Hurricane Michael’s lasting impacts has been the destruction of forests in Florida’s Panhandle. The storm turned much of the rich, green expanse that once extended from Tallahassee to Bay County into broken tree trunks and piles of branches.
Restoring timber acreage in this region is a monumental task that will require years of work and investment. The success of this reforestation will largely determine the long-term condition of natural resources, wildlife habitat and economic opportunity in a number of rural communities.
The Florida Forest Service has reported that more than 2.8 million acres of timber suffered damage due to the hurricane, ranging from moderate losses to complete devastation. Agency officials identified an area stretching westward from Port St. Joe to beyond Mexico Beach and northward to Blountstown as a “catastrophic zone.”
Chuck Mathis, region manager for American Forest Management (AFM), a timber, resource and land consulting firm, said, “I have never seen anything like this. It was like one huge tornado.” Lost timber value exceeded $1.3 billion.
Clearing and Replanting
In addition to the immediate cost in timber, producers affected by the storm must invest in clearing destroyed trees and replanting. Once these tasks have been completed, many of them will have to wait for another 20 years of growth before they will receive a return from their properties.
AFM district manager Ray Sharp pointed out that the most valuable trees suffered the most.
“The more well-managed the stands were, the more damage they absorbed,” Sharp noted. “Trees at age 5 and under did okay. Stands older than that were devastated.”
The process of land clearing is also necessary for wildfire control. Dead and dying wood create fuel that can transform a small burn into a massive conflagration. Florida Forest Service officials have repeatedly expressed warnings about this potential wildfire threat.
As foresters began their recovery efforts, they salvaged what wood was left. Bill Waller, a local consultant who manages sites in Calhoun, Jackson and Bay counties, noted that the initial work was slow because so much of the land was saturated with water.
“It was so wet the first half of 2019 that a conventional logging crew could only work on very dry land with very good access,” Waller explained. “Timber could be salvaged within six months only on the driest sites. We were able to get probably half of the best quality timber salvaged because of wet weather, and we were lucky to get that much.”
Meanwhile, market prices at various mills plummeted because other owners were also trying to sell salvaged wood. Waller’s salvaged product lost 85 percent of its market value compared to prices prior to the hurricane.
Now, nearly two years later, landowners still struggle with clearing and replanting. They face unprecedented expenses in restoring these forests. The cost can be as high as $1,000 an acre.
In general, a crew using heavy equipment can clear and replant about 20 acres each day on dry land. For example, on one set of large parcels AFM oversees in the catastrophic zone, Mathis estimates that replanting cannot be finished on this land until 2025.
Foresters agree that the challenge of paying for such work has slowed restoration. They have called for the release of federal cost-share funds appropriated for Hurricane Michael recovery through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Most private landowners are waiting on help from the government to help get this area reforested,” Mathis said. “Many of them have not even started.”
Large investor groups have started to replant without assistance, but all proprietors will need assistance for the work to restore forests.
Awaiting Disaster Relief
JohnWalt Boatright, Florida Farm Bureau’s director of national affairs, said the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the USDA are attempting to devise a cost-share model that is similar to the farm disaster relief provided after Hurricane Irma. The need is well documented.
“We are in frequent contact with both agencies and our Congressional offices,” Boatright added. “Cost-share will not make our producers whole, but timely assistance will help them with replanting.”
Waller cited his own family’s experience as a case in point. He emphasized his need for cost-share support to complete replanting. With money from salvage, he was only able to plant seedlings on about one-third of his damaged acreage.
“We’ve got several hundred more acres left that we can’t afford to restore without some kind of help,” he said.
If work on restoring forests can continue, the entire region will benefit. The process involves more than recovering the livelihood of timber producers. It will generate green space and speed the recovery of natural resources throughout the region.
“We are creating wealth from a renewable resource, and we do that over and over again, year after year,” Waller said. “If you can’t make a living growing trees, the land is going to go to some other use. That other use will not be as beneficial to water quality or to wildlife in the area.”