By Errol Castens
Trees have grown in what is Mississippi for countless eons, but changes in how they’re grown, how they’re processed and what they’re used for have changed the landscape in the state over the past half-century or so.
Mississippi’s literal landscape change includes nearly one-sixth more forested land than in 1967 – about two-thirds of the state’s land. More of that timber is in pine plantations than ever before – often planted on what was marginal, erosive cropland or pasture.
In 2006, just before timber prices dropped with the decline in housing starts, forest products had reached a high point, contributing $17.4 billion and 123,659 direct and indirect jobs to the state’s economy, according to Mississippi State University research.
“The size of the industry in terms of dollar value sales and jobs is definitely larger than decades ago,” said James Henderson, MSU associate extension professor and one of the authors of the 2008 study.
One of the first big advances was the advent of the Counce, Tenn., papermill, followed by another massive mill in Courtland, Ala. Pulpwood to supply the papermills gave growers a new market for small trees, especially pines.
Landowners benefited doubly – from cash payments for the pulpwood harvest itself and from the faster growth from trees that remained after thinning harvests, eventually boosting yields of trees for higher-priced products such as lumber, plywood or poles.
The pulp market, however, is a big question mark in today’s wood products industry.
“In the U.S., we have a declining pulp/paper sector – partly because of cost of labor and also because of regulatory compliance,” Henderson said. “That’s a substantial cost. A lot of major paper companies – U.S.-based companies – close mills in the U.S. and open them in Asia, where they don’t have those compliance costs.”
Demand has dropped in many sectors, too.
The International Paper plant in Courtland, Ala., is a casualty of that pressure. Formerly a major market for the region’s pulpwood, it began cutting production last year and is now closed completely.
The U.S. housing market over several decades drove domestic demand for lumber and other tree products, making timber a more attractive crop for marginal farmland and justified more intensive management.
“Our forest products industry in the South is tied to the U.S. residential construction market,” Henderson said. While the Pacific Northwest ships much of its timber and wood products to Asia, he added, “We in the South have always been very dependent on domestic consumption.”
The South has a singular advantage in responding to domestic demand, however: The U.S. government owns much of the timber in the Pacific Northwest, while corporations, institutions, families and individuals own most of that in the South. As a result, it is subject to fewer regulations that add to either the cost or the timeline in harvesting.
Henderson is convinced residential construction will fuel a rebound in lumber prices.
“We went from 600,000 housing starts per year in 2008 to a million now and projection of 1.5 million by 2016,” he said.
“We had a real crisis when the housing market crashed,” Howell said. Those 600,000 starts came after a peak of about 2.3 million just before the recession.
“With the housing crisis, prices fell off a cliff – they went down 50 percent,” said Robert Howell, a consulting forester from Baldwyn. “It’s going to take a large recovery of the housing market. I have clients who are in the 70s who need to sell timber, but we’re trying to hold off.”
Governmental policy has played a large role in shaping the timber industry and with it Mississippi’s landscape.
“When I first became aware of the timber industry, my father was one of the first people in Lafayette County to plant pine trees,” said land and timber owner Kaye Bryant of Oxford. “When the YLT (Yazoo-Little Tallahatchie flood control area) planting program came in, he was one of the first to join it. It aimed to correct the failed experiment of planting kudzu to control erosion. The YLT program said we should plant pine trees, which have a deep taproot, to stabilize soil. That was the early 1950s.”
Post-war housing demand and the expansion of utilities fueled much of the government’s promotion of tree farming.
“Most all building required pine timber for framing, and there was a building boom in the early 1950s,” Bryant said. “At that time, all utility poles were made of creosoted logs. If you could grow a pine tree that was straight and tall and not malformed in any way, you could get a prime price for it.”
Paper companies also promoted forest planting and management among small landholders.
“They would have a forester get out in the community and work with landowners to replant, and they would often even give free pine seedlings,” Howell said. “All that was stimulated from the need of these mills to have a reliable wood source.”
The Mississippi Forestry Commission, Mississippi State University Extension Service and several USDA agencies also provide a host of helps to forest landowners from educational programs and publications to marketing and technical advice to area-wide programs such as control of the Southern Pine Beetle – the most destructive insect in southeastern U.S. forests.
Among the most popular federal programs aimed at timber landowners is the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, which in the mid-1980s began offering landowners cost-sharing and annual payments in exchange for long-term contracts to preserve erosive lands, riparian buffers and other environmentally sensitive areas. CRP, which was a successor to the 1950s and 1960s Soil Bank program, resulted in the planting of millions of acres of trees nationwide.
Mississippi’s timber severance tax funds a reforestation program that grants up to $75,000 in lifetime tax credits, matching up to 50 percent of costs for regenerating pine and hardwood stands.
While the industry has grown in both acres and dollars, some aspects of timbering that were common just a few decades ago are essentially gone.
Fire towers were once vital to spotting smoke plumes and dispatching wildfire suppression crews have been replaced by aerial and even satellite detection.
Harvest of pulpwood by chainsaw and bobtruck has given way to machines that cut and delimb tree-length logs, making the process far less labor-intensive and far more capital-intensive. Tied to that change, railroads that hauled pulpwood from local woodyards to paper mills now sit idle in many towns, while 18-wheelers loaded with those logs make 200-mile round trips to mills in the region.
“We used to have a lot of smaller trucks, and the wood companies, because of their concern about reliability of producers, decided they would have satellite buying sites,” said Robert Howell, a consulting forester from Baldwyn. “They had woodyards in every little town – Maben, Holly Springs, New Albany, Booneville.”
Don Thompson, a consulting forester from Golden, said the 5-foot, 3-inch sticks – often loaded by hand onto one-ton trucks to haul to a local buyer – were simply too labor-intensive.
“Short wood stopped in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the mills got to where they could handle tree-length logs,” Thompson said.
One forestry task where hand labor still dominates is reforestation, Thompson said. While machines can transplant year-old trees in open fields or pastures, humans with hand tools are more effective at planting such seedlings where rough terrain or harvest debris would stymie a mechanical planter.
Research and development
New products and technologies have provided new markets for timber products, too, in the past 50 years. Oriented strand board, a cheaper plywood substitute often used in subfloors, roof sheathing and even furniture, uses trees that are too crooked and knotty for traditional plywood or lumber.
“Chip-and-saw” technology allows harvesters to extract more valuable two-by-fours from the hearts of small trees while utilizing the rest for OSB. The rayon favored by many Asian garment manufacturers is made with dissolved pulp, another recent advance in wood-products exporting.
Renewable energy is another potential use of Mississippi wood.
“The technology for cellulose-based ethanol is not there yet, but there is a well-functioning market for wood pellets,” Henderson said, noting that much of the demand is fueled by European policies that give incentives for carbon-neutral energy sources: Burning wood gives off carbon dioxide exhaust, but replanted trees absorb carbon from air and give off oxygen.
“The market for production of energy from wood is going to continue to increase,” said Paul Jones, MSU extension associate professor. “There are multiple pellet plants in the state that are in the process of being built. There’s actually a couple in Northeast Mississippi.”
A host of technologies are involved in intensively managed tree farming.
“Private landowners have, to a great extent, realized the value of our timber land and are managing it and reaping the benefits of it,” Howell said. “Because of the research and development that have given us genetic improvements and herbicides and fertilization and new tree spacings, we’ve improved the productivity per acre.
“Compressing time is really important. What we’ve done is to get a tree that tall and that big in a shorter amount of time,” he said.
In previous generations, many landowners didn’t spend any resources on managing timber, assuming it to be a once-in-a-lifetime harvest. With improved genetics and care, however, one owner may conceivably see two terminal harvests.
“I’m cutting timber that I planted, and I’m almost doing it twice,” Howell said.