Roving lumberjack crews are scouring East Texas, trying to salvage dead or
dying pine and hardwood trees.
A year after historic drought and wildfires ravaged East Texas, an already economically battered timber industry is literally cutting its losses and hoping the worst is behind.
Matt Morris, owner of Morris Timber Co. in Bullard, said he has 14 logging crews working around the region. He said last year's drought and fires are forcing landowners to log trees for lower prices and lesser products. Trees being grown for lumber are being cut for pulpwood.
"We're harvesting a lot of dead timber," he said. "It's kept us busy trying to salvage what we can."
Texas' timber industry was hit by a "perfect storm" in 2011, said Texas A&M Forest Service Forest Resource Development and Sustainable Forestry Program Manager Burl Carraway.
It was a difficult end to a downward trend.
The industry experienced a near $10 billion dip in statewide economic impact between 2007 and 2009 because of a slowing economy and stagnant new construction.
Last year's drought and wildfires added to the frustration and struggles of landowners, loggers and saw mills around East Texas, the state's richest timber region.
Wildfires affected more than 150,000 acres in 2011, Carraway said. Losses translate to 175 million cubic feet, enough lumber to build a 6-foot-tall privacy fence around the world 1.5 times, he said, and roughly $208 million in value.
Drought losses remain an unfinished tally because trees, especially hardwoods, such as oaks, sweet gum and hickory, stressed and weakened by historically high temperatures and low precipitation, face slow deaths by disease and continued drought.
The forest service estimated up to 500 million trees would be lost due to drought conditions. The agency still is assessing acreage and species losses, Carraway said.
"It was a perfect storm of a lot of, I'll call them, challenges facing the industry," he said. "It all had a compounding effect."
BILLIONS WITH A "B"
The total economic impact of timber in Texas, from businesses with direct ties to forests to indirect economic beneficiaries such as furniture stores, was $33.6 billion in 2007, according to forest service reports. By 2009, the monetary multiplier effect of timber dropped to $23.7 billion.
The industry directly lost $3 billion and reduced its workforce by 49,000 and its payroll by $1 billion during the same time.
East Texas, a 41-county region stretching from Red River County to the Gulf Coast, with 12.1 million acres of forestland, contributes more than two-thirds of the statewide industry's production.
James Houser, a forestry consultant based in Jacksonville, said the economy is the main factor for billion-dollar losses to the industry, but that drought and fire are playing a role in individual business' losses around the region.
Last August, loggers near Gilmer reported fresh cut pine trees having 12 percent of their typical 100 percent "green weight" moisture level. A healthy tree is roughly half water and half wood, said Ed Dougal, a wood utilization specialist for the forest service.
In an industry driven by weight, moisture means money.
Forest Service officials said there was no credible scientific calculation for industry losses due to low weights. Dougal, said the reports from Gilmer were suspect, because logged trees dried in kilns still register 10 percent moisture.
Typically a loaded semi-truck of pine weighs 27 tons, said Texas A&M Forest Service District Forrester Clint Hays. There were scattered reports around the region of loads coming in at half their typical payload, he said.
Houser estimated statewide average weights were up to 10 percent less than last year.
Lumber prices are half what they were in 2007, Hays said. Landowners who sold pine saw timber, used for 2-by-4s and conventional building lumber, for an average of $48.95 a ton in 2007 are now selling for $24.30 a ton.
The influx of burned or drought-stricken trees is flooding the market, driving prices even lower, Hays said.
"They're trying to get something for their trees, and it's flooded the mills," Hays said. "It's supply and demand, and right now with the building start numbers like they are, it's hurting everybody."
Hypoxylon Canker, a tree killing fungus, represents a major threat to stressed trees. Drought weakens trees. Canker kills them. Dieouts typically take years, Carraway said. It gives landowners time to monitor their forests and salvage major dieouts, but it means they won't be able to wait for better market prices, he said.
Carraway said drought and fire mortality compounds localized losses but doesn't show up as "a huge effect on industry and operations" in East Texas.
With housing starts beginning to show an upward trend statewide and nationally, Carraway is optimistic that resurgence in the building market will mean resurgence in the forests.
Typically, the forest service and landowners plant 50 million to 100 million trees each year, he said. Last year, because of persistent drought conditions, few risked planting trees. This year offered more rain and more hope, with a greater number of plantings expected, he said.
"One thing I do know is the forests of East Texas are resilient," Carraway said.
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