The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2011 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Steven Rich
Lester Johnson looks out over the barren land adjacent to his home with a single tear streaming down his left cheek.
"It didn’t always used to be like this," Johnson said this fall, wiping his face. "There used to be a beautiful forest out here. Now it’s just a bunch of stumps."
The view from his Shannon County property has drastically changed in recent months, as the neighboring land was purchased and clear-cut, a method of logging in which most or all trees in an area are felled, regardless of health or age.
Missouri foresters say such clear-cutting in the Ozark forests is on a dangerous upswing, largely the result of a scheme they brand "strip and flip" by quick-buck operators.
"It’s too common," said Doug Enyart, owner of Clearwater Forest Consultants. "They buy it, strip it and sit on it until some unwitting buyer buys it off them for as much or more than they paid, rendering the timber absolutely free."
From European settlement in the early 19th century through the Civil War, most timber in Missouri’s Ozarks was only harvested when it was needed, said Tom Draper, former Missouri forester and deputy director of the Missouri Department of Conservation.
"Missouri had really rich, untapped woodlands that had not really ever been touched by European man," Draper said.
From the mid-1870s to the mid-1920s, as the country expanded westward, lumbermen began to liquidate the state’s timber for reconstruction in the post-Civil War era and to build railroads. Much of the activity focused in Grandin, where the Missouri Lumber and Mining Co. set up shop in 1887.
By 1920, the timber ran out, marking the first time Missouri’s forests had been clear-cut for economic advantage, Draper said.
Opportunity knocks. For the most part, the forests that had been stripped in the Ozarks grew back. Now, clear-cutting has returned, but for different reasons. Without a need to rebuild and no more westward expansion, many wonder why this trend has resurfaced. Some suggest that most of Missouri’s forestland is not managed properly.
"Less than five percent of woodland owners in the state deal with a professional forester who can help to manage their land," said Scott Brundage, founder of the Missouri Forest Resources Advisory Council.
This can lead to sawmill owners and loggers taking advantage of the timber on privately owned forestland, and on schemers who "strip and flip."
Many see this practice as immoral, but no laws are violated.
"It’s not an illegal activity by any means," said Hank Dorst of the Mark Twain Forest Watchers. "This is an opportunistic situation where somebody sees an undervalued resource and capitalizes on it. That’s the way making money works."
In the Ozarks, one can normally see forest for miles. But some areas are strikingly empty. These are the stripped properties.
"If you spend any time in the Ozarks, when land changes hands and the owners have different objectives, it can be dramatic," Enyart said.
Aging forest, aging owners. Eighty-two percent of Missouri’s forestland is in the hands of private owners, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.
Some see an aging population of forestland owners as a reason why stripping and flipping has become more of a problem. According to a 2008 survey of family forestland owners conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, people 55 and older own more than two-thirds of Missouri’s family forestland. Those 75 and older own 17 percent.
Many older forestland owners do not know how much the timber on their property is worth, Enyart said. When timber buyers approach forestland owners and offer $10,000 for timber, many owners take it because they need the money. The timber might be worth $100,000, but they don’t know that. Compounding this problem are heirs with lives away from their parents.
"They just want to unload it," Enyart said of the heirs after their parents die. "Well that’s the prime time for the timber operator that strips and flips to come in and buy it."
Education, not regulations. Some critics of stripping and flipping look for forest management regulations that could prevent this practice. So far their search has been as fruitful as the search for Santa Claus.
"If you bought 80 acres of forest and wanted to convert that to pasture, no laws would prevent you from doing that," Draper said.
Not everyone is convinced the state could pass such laws.
"It would be difficult to get any changes enacted," Dorst said. "The people of the Ozarks are individualistic. It wouldn’t be popular to try to implement any changes."
Enyart wondered how much the government could intrude. Property rights mean a lot to Americans. For Brundage, the problem isn’t lack of regulations, but rather a lack of education.
"It’s educating the landowner so he knows what you’re doing and why you’re doing it," Brundage said. "Then you can have your cake and eat it, too."
Like selling a car. For Draper, the solution goes beyond education. The answer lies in a practice commonly used when other items are sold: appraisal.
"You’re going to sell a car," Draper said. "You’re going to sell a gun, a boat, a home. You know what the value is."
Despite this practice, most people don’t think to get their land appraised.
"I’ve been in this state for 23 years and a forester for 36," Draper said. "But for some reason when people have trees and they’re offered what seems like a large sum of money, they just sell them without getting an appraisal."
Foresters encourage forestland owners to get an appraisal when they buy land.
"That’s one tool that the forestry and conservation professions are striving to do — to communicate the value of that resource," Draper said.
For Johnson, there’s no sense living in the past.
"What’s done is done," he said, looking across the barren landscape near his home. "Just got to move on and pray this don’t happen again."