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Almost incomprehensible: Mississippi, Louisiana forests start long road to recovery

Even before the full scope of devastation was known, the Mississippi timber industry knew Katrina had dealt it a dirty hand: trees snapped in half, branches strewn and kindling debris waiting for a spark to turn the whole thing into an inferno. Even to a forester, the sorry scene is “almost incomprehensible,” said Kent Grizzard, a spokesman at the Mississippi Forestry Commission.

The preliminary numbers show 1.3 million acres of Mississippi commercial timber has been damaged.

“On timber damage, we look at two classifications. One is saw timber — trees that are large enough to provide lumber and building materials. We had 3.2 billion board feet of saw timber damage. That includes pine and hardwood.”

From that amount of board feet, 214,000 average-sized houses could be built.

The second category is cords (a cord typically measures 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, 8 feet long) — pulpwood. Mississippi sustained damage to 14.6 million cords of pulpwood.

“Everyone knows the dimensions of a football field. Well, you could take all the cords damaged and fill 9,700 football fields. Think about that.”

All together, the commercial value of the damaged timber is $1.3 billion.

The damage estimate also included urban forests. All told, 2.7 million trees in 181 Mississippi communities were damaged — an impact of $1.1 billion.

“Combining the commercial forest damage and the economic impact of damaged trees in urban areas equals $2.4 billion in losses.”

Katrina was no gentler to Louisiana forests. Damage from the hurricane is estimated at 3 billion board feet of timber with an estimated value of around $610 million. About 65 percent of that total is softwood with the remainder in hardwood.

“This is a hardship on the landowners, the loggers and the markets,” said Janet Tompkins with the Louisiana Forestry Association. “We'll be dealing with the repercussions for the next 15 years or more.”

I-55 runs north/south through Louisiana. Most of the forest damage is east of I-55. The three hardest hit parishes are St. Tammany, Washington and Tangipahoa.

Paper mills in the area lost power and employees for about a week after the hurricane. Back running now, the mills are accepting wood.

“One bad part of this is most of the market was already full prior to the storm,” said Tompkins. “That's just because of the timing. At this time of year, wood is brought in before it begins getting too wet.”

Salvage operations — and timber recovery task forces — are up and running in both states. The clock is ticking because the longer the timber is left uncollected, the more chance of degeneration and lessening value. As it has the greatest value, the priority is to pick up anything that can be salvaged as saw timber.

But even that's not a sure thing, said Tompkins. “I've talked to a mill that said a lot of the salvaged wood looks fine for saw timber but it's not. There's a lot being culled. Once they begin milling it, it's not holding up as saw timber.”

As a result, much of the saw timber will be devalued down to pulpwood. And prices on pulpwood are dropping.

In Louisiana, to accommodate the massive amount of salvaged timber, storage areas are being set up. Logging and trucking permits are also being expedited to try and get as much downed timber picked up as possible.

There is yet another obstacle, however. “Some people from outside the damaged areas want to go in and help cut and salvage,” said Tompkins. “But they should know there are no hotel rooms, no campgrounds, and no empty houses. That's certainly a problem for anyone wanting to go in there and work.”

“Obviously, we want to salvage as much as possible,” said Grizzard. “A task force has banded together and consists of private forests, industries, state and federal agencies and an assortment of other people who have interests in recovering as much of this damaged timber as possible. The force is currently developing the strategy of how to go about that.

“Debris removal is another aspect of this. All the debris must be collected and moved out of communities in a safe manner.”

How long before the forests could be back in shape?

“It's too early for me to say,” said Grizzard. “This hurricane has replaced everything else in the record books. Look back at Hurricane Ivan last year. It was very destructive but nothing close to Katrina. A year after Ivan, Alabama is still dealing with salvage and debris issues. So Mississippi will be in the recovery business for at least several years.

“We had an ice storm back in 1994 — a broad disaster that affected 26 counties in north Mississippi. We were involved with the effects of that for three years. I imagine this hurricane will take longer to deal with.”

Although company land was hit, too, the majority of the forests hurt in Louisiana are on private land. For the landowners who had their savings account “on the stump, we'll have to show them it's worthwhile to go back in, clear the land and begin planting again,” said Tompkins.

“In Louisiana, we haven't had a bad hurricane in a while. We have had tornados. The hurricane damage I've seen isn't as twisted as when a tornado comes through…There is a variety of damage. Many trees are broken off. The larger trees sustained the most damage along with plantations that were recently thinned. The younger plantations that haven't been thinned made out a little better.”

One of the biggest priorities will be to get the land reforested, said Tompkins. In the short-term, “we'll have a glut of wood on the market. But then, for the next 15 years, we'll be nurturing another crop of trees.”

On top of all the cleanup issues, both states now face a significant wildfire threat. Grizzard said the debris in the woods is a spark away from catastrophe.

“We're very concerned about people burning debris piles. That could allow fire to jump into the woods. There are burn bans in 30 Mississippi counties — most in the south. The burn ban has been driven by debris and dry weather conditions. The hurricane-supplied fuel — limbs and broken trees — is thick.

“We've got veteran foresters who've never seen such forest fuel out there…Many folks don't seem to understand how serious this threat is.”


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