North Florida’s Trees Have a Major Economic Impact on The Region

The State's Wood Basket

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Matt Burke


Forests play a significant economic role in Florida. Lee Ann Fisch, of the Florida Forestry Association (FFA), likes to say “forestry is agriculture’s best-kept secret.” Agriculture, mind, is Florida’s second major industry after tourism, and forestry is one of agriculture’s top revenue generators. 

In 2011, the latest available figures from the Florida Department of Agriculture (FDOA) show the state’s nearly 17 million acres of timberlands supported economic activities that generated $13.95 billion in revenues; employed 76,000 full and part-time workers; provided $5.15 billion worth of exported forest products; and generated $401 million in indirect business taxes. 

In terms of employment, the pulp and paper products industry accounted for 75 percent of those 76,000 jobs; forest management and logging for 13 percent; secondary wood production, seven percent; and lumber, veneer and panels manufacturing,
5 percent.

Admittedly, the 2011 numbers were lower than in 2010; still, 2011 was a marked improvement over 2008, the lowest point of what has come to be called the Great Recession.

Nationally, the news for forests is good. According to a 2007 comprehensive analysis by the Society of American Foresters (SAF) titled “The State of America’s Forests”: The United States is the world’s fourth richest country in forests; U.S. forestland acreage has essentially remained unchanged the past century; the volume of growing stock of hardwood and softwood tree species in U.S. forests grew by 49 percent between 1953 and 2006; an estimated 25 percent of U.S. private forestland is sustainably managed in accordance with one of three major forest certification programs; and conservation initiatives on private land are on the rise.

Courtesy Florida Forest Service
New firefighters hone their tractor defense skills during basic fire control training. Prescribed burns are used to keep private and public forests healthy.

On the downside: U.S. forests face significant challenges from insect and disease mortality, non-native invasive species, wildfires, encroaching urbanization, and on the timber production side, increasing foreign competition and forest divestures by large corporations in the forest products industry (The St. Joe Company’s sale of the majority of its land holdings in Northwest Florida comes to mind; although in this case, the Utah-based AgReserves Inc., a subsidiary of the Mormon Church, is expected to continue in the forest products industry.)

The SAF findings are corroborated at the state level by the 2013 Florida Agriculture by the Numbers annual report from the state’s agriculture department and 2013 Comprehensive Statewide Forest Inventory Analysis and Study from the Florida Forest Service (FFS). 

The state findings underscore the viability of Florida’s forests and their economic importance, particularly in the Panhandle. The basic message of the two reports is that Florida’s forests are largely healthy and sustainable. 

Drawing from these reports and market trends, timber industry experts foretell a post-recession rebound driven by renewed housing starts, continuing Asian demand for softwood logs and lumber (primarily China), and expanding domestic and foreign bio-energy consumption, among other factors.

The news from the paper industry is equally upbeat.  

“We continue to see improvements overall,” says Cathy Foley, vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association, which represents the U.S. pulp, paper, packaging and wood products manufacturing industry. “The U.S. paper industry has been running a trade surplus in recent years, with about 20 percent of production exported in 2013. World paper consumption is expanding approximately 2.1 percent a year, and we continue to experience growth in the containerboard and tissue sectors.”

North Florida is particularly poised to take advantage of the upswing, given it contains the overwhelming majority of the state’s forestlands, 96 percent of its tree plantations and most of the primary wood-using mills, earning it the moniker of “wood basket.” 

The picture isn’t totally rosy, however. Florida forests face threats from fires, non-native invasive species and urbanization/fragmentation pressures, as well as potential softwood timber shortages in some areas. At the industry level, the challenges include high operating costs, shrinking profit margins, burdensome regulations, stagnant lumber rates and an aging logger population, combined with a limited number of young people entering the industry. “We’re a dying breed,” laments one logger.


A Forestry Primer

The SAF defines the forest industry as “a diverse group of manufacturers that harvest, process and use timber in their products.” 

Individuals in this industry engage in such activities as planting, harvesting and selling trees, as well as converting timber into primary products (lumber, plywood, wood pulp, etc.) or secondary products (pallets, furniture, paper goods, etc.). Included in the industry are tree farmers, forest managers, loggers, mill operators and sundry others in associated industries that make, use or sell wood or wood products, as well as thousands of forest-derived products.

In terms of timber production, trees — not unlike other agriculture commodities — are a cash crop, if with a long-term yield, as it typically takes about 15 years before they can be harvested. And silviculture, commonly called “the agriculture of trees,” deals with how best to grow, manage and manipulate trees to maximize their growth, health, quality, composition, etc., and do so sustainably. Silviculture is not limited to the private sector; the public sector also practices it, if for different reasons.

Courtesy Ginger Gray

Jerry Gray, owner of Gray Logging LLC Shop in Madison County, with granddaughter Hannah Light, worries that not enough trees are being planted to replace the timber taken out.

“These are basic techniques taught in Forestry College,” says Winnie Schreiber, FFS forest manager bureau chief. “We do many of the same things as the timber companies as far as thinning, prescribed burns and harvesting.”

The difference, she says, is that in the private sector the aim is typically to maximize productivity and economic yield, whereas in the public sector it’s to ensure overall forest health and enhanced multiple uses. 

Not that the state doesn’t sell timber. Along with managing public forests for maintenance of the ecosystem, wildlife habitat and general health, revenue generation through timber sales is a definite goal. 

“Timber harvesting is a significant component of our management,” Schreiber says. “We do an annual inventory plan for timber sales. We sell the timber, monitor the harvests and do reforestation.”      

It’s in the private sector, however, where timber production truly dominates. According to the FFS analysis, 63 percent of Florida’s forests are privately-owned, most by non-industrial, non-corporate property owners, with private ownership reaching as high as 76 percent of forestlands in some areas of north Florida.

The literature suggests that a great percentage of private forestland is in the hands of families that own less than 10 acres. This group, furthermore, is growing, its mean age is increasing, timber production isn’t necessarily its primary objective and few have management plans. All of which has implications for sustainability.