Southern forestry programs, which generate billions of dollars of revenue to private landowners, too often get short shrift from federal programs, industry leaders told members of a House subcommittee.
“Federal programs and incentives for forest owners are meager, fragmented, and often delivered in a way that limits the number of forest owners they can serve,” said Chuck Leavell, representing the American Tree Farm System.
“Many of the conservation programs already in place don't place a high enough priority on sustaining and conserving forests,” he said.
Forestry constitutes a major portion of agricultural income in many Southern states. Mississippi, for example, has an estimated 18.15 million acres of forest land, almost 70 percent held by private, non-industrial landowners.
The value of Mississippi's timber harvest has set all-time record highs in nine of the last 10 years, and in any year is among the top-three most-valuable agricultural crops in more than 80 percent of the state's counties.
Arkansas has some 18.77 million acres of forest land, of which about 60 percent is privately owned. Its forest products industry, including pulp/paper manufacturing, is the state's largest manufacturer.
In fiscal 1998, nine of the 11 top states in terms of new tree acres planted were in the South: Georgia led with 416,000; followed by Mississippi with 371,000; Alabama, 310,000; Florida, 189,000; Texas, 163,000; Louisiana, 156,000; Arkansas, 114,000; North Carolina, 106,000; and Virginia, 101,000. Thirteen Southern states planted 1.065 million acres of trees, 79 percent of the U.S. total. Southern states also dominated in nursery production, turning out more than a billion seedling trees that year.
Despite all that, Leavell told the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, and Forestry, while forest owners produce a lot in terms of wood and wood products, as well as clean air, wildlife habitat, recreation, green space, and other benefits, “We don't necessarily get much for it. We're asked to do more and more through federal and state mandates… but if forestry becomes too expensive… selling to a developer may be our only choice.
“Investing in trees is long-term, risky, and when you consider that many of us have to wait 10 years to 40 years to get a check — if we get one at all — it isn't all that profitable.”
Leavell said development of the upcoming farm bill will “provide Congress with an opportunity to address these problems. He said Congress should:
Blend the Forestry Incentives Program and the Stewardship Incentives Program into a single Sustainable Forestry Incentives Program, funded at $150 million yearly.
“The aim of this program would be to provide federal funding that supports conservation practices on private, non-industrial forests. We believe the range of practices should be broad, and that Congress should consider mechanisms that reward owners who have already invested large sums of money, time, and energy toward implementing them.”
Program decisions should be made at the state level, Leavell said. “State stewardship committees, broadly representative of all stakeholders, including forest landowners, should determine which practices are eligible, and the state forestry agency should implement the program.”
Enacting the new incentive program, he said, would “meet two of our most critical goals — making it easier for forest owners to gain access to programs that support sustainability and forest conservation, and insuring that administrative costs are held to the minimum necessary, putting public funds to work on the ground, not back at the office.”
Create a new program called the Sustainable Forestry Outreach Initiative, funded at $45 million annually, to coordinate and strengthen public and private sector efforts “to get forest owners on the road to sustainability.”
Too many landowners “don't know what they can accomplish through better forestry; don't know what's possible; and don't know where to turn to get professional advice that can make it happen,” Leavell said. “Without good planning, they can get shortchanged on the income… and can neglect easy steps that will protect wildlife and water quality and insure the future health of their woodlands.”
Strengthen and sharpen the focus of existing conservation programs so they will “work better in getting more people to sustain their forests.”
Leavell suggests that the Forest Stewardship Program be authorized and funded at a higher level to provide more landowner assistance at state and local levels in delivering technical assistance in meeting federal mandates for water quality, wetlands, species conservation, etc.
And, he said, “there's an alphabet soup of other farm bill programs that could get more owners to practicing sustainable forestry,” including the Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.
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