Forests and Timber: Burned by a Recession

March 25, 2010 11:28 AM


The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2009 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.


By Beverley Kreul
Tim Stanton takes a step back and admires his work. Another white oak tree stands straight and sturdy on the hillside of the Lead Mine Conservation Area outside of Tunas, Mo. More than 30 years of work has been put into this particular tree, and soon will come the time to reap the rewards.
Unfortunately, this year's timber market may not want this tree.         
"Since the economy has fallen, it has been harder and harder to find a decent bidder for our trees," said Stanton, the Forestry Regional Supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "A bad economy leads to limited timber harvesting. "
The Missouri Forest Products Association estimates that the timber industry lost almost $1.4 billion in 2008 -- a 25 percent decline.
"In the forest industry we never have any guarantee of the future," said Stanton. "The market can be devastating one year and back to normal the next."
Forests cover over a third of Missouri and are the state's greatest renewable resource. Yet, with the decline in the economy Missouri loggers, foresters and conservationists have struggled with timber production, a market that once contributed over $3 billion a year to the Missouri economy. To understand the significance of this impact it helps to know the process and history of the timber industry.

Rodney Zimmerman's crewman works a harvester on Sept. 12 at the Lead Mine Conservation Area, near Tunas, Mo. (Photo by Chris Dunn/ University of Missouri.)
A closer look at Lead Mine 
Although timber cuts are only one small part of the work at Lead Mine Conservation Area, foresters work diligently to make the best of production. Lead Mine covers over 9,000 acres of land, which was purchased through a University of Missouri land grant.
Stanton manages the conservation area, a job that can be compared to a performer trying to juggle timber production, wildlife management, recreation and conservation. At the same time, he strives to please the crowd.
Timber, like any source, needs to be replenished constantly to provide resources for the future. The conservation area uses a process known as clearcut management. Clearcutting is a method that cuts every tree in a given area.
"This is the best management practice for most forests in Missouri," said Stanton.
Clearcutting is usually the most cost effective method of logging, he said. Loggers do not have to worry about damaging other trees in the area, because they are all coming down. The management work is less complex and costly. This is also the best method for establishing native trees back to Missouri, Stanton said.
Missouri was once covered with oak and hickory forests. But oak trees are shade intolerant. Once new species of trees were introduced to Missouri forests, less sunlight was available for the oaks. This has led to a decrease in the number of oaks across Missouri. Clearcutting is the most effective method for launching new forests of oak trees, Stanton said. 
Many organizations argue that clearcutting damages the ecosystem. Disputes about water quality, erosion and wildlife management are just some of these arguments. Clearcut practices have not been proven to have such negative effects on any of these if conducted correctly, according to a study by Clemson University.
Loggers chop the tree off anywhere from one and a half to two feet from the ground when clearcutting. The stumps and root systems are left intact.
"Some of these root systems are over 50 years old," said Steve Laval, the area manager for Lead Mine Conservation Area. "They go down and out in every direction at least 20 feet."
The roots are left in the ground, which prevents erosion. This is just one way of preventing excess water damage in the area. Another is placing a buffer along those areas susceptible to runoff.
Buffers are large mounds of dirt that dam the water from washing over a ledge or onto a road. This dam-like structure is placed every 100 feet down a slope that has experienced a clearcut. This keeps the water from gaining momentum and sweeping the soil into nearby streams and rivers, ruining the water quality.
Vegetation also flourishes under clearcut practices. Lush growth occurs after an area has been logged. This growth often attracts more wildlife. Other logging methods can boost wildlife, too.
"The different cutting practices implemented in a forest provide a variety of different habitats," said Jim Sheppard, the lead researcher on the Clemson study. "The variety of habitats allows for a broadened diversity of wildlife as well."
At Lead Mine, about 3 percent to 4 percent of the land is clearcut every 15 years. This means that less than 1 percent of the land is harvested in a single year. Conservation agents are not the ones who harvest the trees. They leave that to a different side of the industry.


Rodney Zimmerman collects data from the day's harvest at the Lead Mine Conservation Area to track the company's yield. The economy has decreased demand, so Zimmermann and other loggers must be conscious of their production numbers.  (Photo by Chris Dunn/ University of Missouri.)

Timber as trade
"We don't manage trees -- we manage people," said Cody Smith, a resource forester assistant with the conservation department.
Of the people Smith manages, loggers have the greatest impact on the forest. Conservation employees, like Stanton and Smith, bid out the acres to logging companies.
A sealed bid is placed on the acres of forest offered for production. Once all the bids are in, the highest bidder is selected to harvest the area. But this year exceptions have been made.
"The economy has limited timber harvesting," said Stanton. "The only market today is railroad ties, and even those have fallen."
Once the highest bidder is selected, the logging process can begin. A carefully choreographed dance is the only way to ensure a safe and effective process. The foresters who work on the area go through the land and mark the border of trees with a florescent strip of paint to clearly select the tree for harvesting. 
Lumberjacks in flannel shirts and overalls are often the next image, but just as the timber industry has changed so has the image of logging. No longer are axes the main tool of the trade.
Rodney Zimmerman, a local logger, arrives at the scene in khakis with a pencil and clipboard in hand, making sure to steer clear of the massive machines around him. One employee runs a Bell Harvester, a huge hydraulic cutter that is safer than chainsaws. A giant claw clamps onto the base of a tree, and the harvester cuts the trunk. 
The tree is swung overhead onto a platform and cut to the desired length. A blur of saws and flying bark surrounds these loggers day in and day out. One wrong step could result in more than a lost tree.
"Logging is the most dangerous job in the world," said Zimmerman. "People are maimed, crushed or disfigured every year."
Once the logs are cut, they are loaded onto a truck and hauled to the local sawmill or wood chipper. From there, a tree that once stood tall and deeply rooted in place is turned into anything from a whiskey barrel to wooden chips for mulch.
The forest industry alone employs 49,000 people in Missouri, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Almost 30,000 of those are employed in timber production.
"The timber industry has been directly affected the most by the housing industry, which has seen a drop in new home construction and sales," said Brian Brookshire, director of the Missouri Forest Products Association.  The association brings together forest product companies, state agencies and professional foresters. "When the demand for new homes is low, the need for higher quality lumber is also lower. In this recession, demand has declined 25 to 30 percent."
Many people in the timber industry have felt this impact. They have seen their futures and dreams splinter.
"It has been a challenging year," said Zimmerman. "The recession has been unsettling for my family, and the market is testing our limits."
An industry of insurgents
Although logging has been a part of Missouri's history for over 100 years, the poor economy is not the only threat to test its limits. The forest also battles illegal logging and arsonists on a daily basis.
"Forest fires are a naturally occurring event," said Bruce Cutter, a professor of forestry at the University of Missouri. "But you have to have a balancing act between trees, animals and the air." 
Fire often recycles nutrients back into the soil. Some trees depend on the heat from fire to open cones and release their seeds. Other trees, such as the shortleaf pine, need fire to remove underbrush and allow for their seeds to germinate as well as open the forest ceiling to allow in sunlight and warm the soil, promoting growth and new life.
But unplanned wildfires and arson can damage the forest. They may weaken or even kill trees, cause wounds where insects and disease can penetrate and increase soil erosion. Trees have almost no defenses against wildfires and therefore are at the mercy of those who can light a match.
Arson fires attack and destroy decades of work in the blink of an eye. The conservation department reports that "careless trash burners" account for 60 percent of forest fires in Missouri. Arsonists deliberately set another 15 percent. Wildfires destroy 30,000 to 90,000 acres of forest annually.
Illegal logging is another insurgent that destroys the timber market.
According to a recent global study conducted by the American Forest and Paper Association, "illegal logging not only contributes to deforestation, but also undermines the viability of legally harvested and traded forest products and is a serious detriment to forest sustainability."
The association estimates that 10 percent of global timber production is of suspicious origin. Illegal harvesting is predicted to depreciate wood prices by 7 percent to 16 percent on average, depending on the product.

The future of the forest

Steve Laval, Tim Stanton and Cody Smith of the Missouri Department of Conservation gather around an oak tree to demonstrate the hardiness and sustainability of oaks at the Lead Mine Conservation Area. Missouri was once covered with oak-hickory hardwood forests but has since then been overrun by other species. (Photo by Chris Dunn/ University of Missouri.)
With so many elements battling the timber industry, predicting the future of this line of production is difficult. 
"Right now, the lumberyards are full, but the wood has nowhere to go," said David Haberl, a senior forestry student at the University of Missouri. "The market has been steady, but now it is completely slacked off."
The timber industry is dependant on long-term care. On average, it takes 100 years before a tree is ready to harvest. Forestry today directly affects forestry of the future. This is true for timber production as well as the job market.
Within the past 10 years, the long-term focus of many timber companies has changed. The motto of "cut out and get out" has flourished, according to the Missouri Conservationist Magazine. Since the recession and the fall of the market, many smaller timber companies have been forced to sell their rights to land. The larger timber companies most often buy them.
These purchases are usually leased to large companies for 30 years. After 30 years of owning the land, these companies harvest the trees and do little to replenish resources, the magazine said.
In the long run, this may lead to a downturn of the timber industry, Haberl said.
One example of this effect dates back to the 1800s. The largest sawmill in the United State then was located in Grandin, Mo. Much of Southeast Missouri was covered with vast pine forests that had not been harvested due to the inaccessible location.
In 1887, loggers arrived and bought immense tracts of forestland. These acres were cut and turned into hundreds of miles of railroad ties. The sawmill at Grandin consumed upwards of 70 acres of woodland per day, the magazine said.
The market soon became so saturated with pine that the price fell and the pine industry collapsed. By the 1920s, the pine forests, the mill and the jobs were gone.
Many graduating forestry students, like Haberl, know that the job market is limited in most of the United States. The forestry industry has yet to see a large number of jobs ended, but that does not mean jobs will exist for these graduates, he said.
"There have been a lot of retirements in the industry in the past couple of years," Haberl said. "But these jobs are not being filled, and that makes it difficult to understand the impact the economy has had on the job market."
Even the Missouri Department of Conservation has experienced downsizing in the past two years. According to Director John Hoskins, this leaner team will not hinder the work done at the conservation department but instead increase efficiency.
"For 25 years, we have used the resources the Missourians gave us to build the nation's most innovative, dynamic conservation program," Hoskins said in a phone interview. "In large part, that involved buying land and building facilities to help people enjoy the outdoors. Our challenge now is to take care of those assets. To accomplish this mission, we have to use our resources judiciously and develop the most efficient, effective organization possible.
The forests and timber industry of Missouri have endured many struggles throughout their history. Whether scars from arson fires or burns brought on by a fraught economy, Missouri's forests and timber production have continued to grow. Perhaps, after another 30 years of hard work, that white oak Stanton worked so feverously to protect will be ready for harvest and will be accepted into a community where forests flourish and timber triumphs.

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