North Florida's Timber Industry Has Lost $1.3 Billion Following Hurricane Michael

Feb 12, 2019

A pine tree that fell due to Hurricane Michael
Credit Eleanor Clark / WFSU-FM

Recovery efforts continue for the Timber industry after Hurricane Michael. But landowners are likely to foot the cleanup bill, which could put them at risk of going broke. 

Depending on the severity of damage, landowners could face cleanup estimates ranging from $600 to $1,500 per acre. The Florida Forestry Association’s Executive Vice President, Alan Shelby, says they have a goal of salvaging 15 percent of the 2.8 million acres of downed trees. But there’s little recourse for timber farmers.

“These are uninsured crops because of the longevity that it takes to grow… 20 plus years. And, while there is private insurance available, it’s just cost prohibitive. If you were to carry that premium for those amount of years, you would have spent all of your profit at the end of that growing cycle," he says.

There is also a six-month window to salvage wood before it becomes unusable. Shelby says sawmills in the area are also facing tough choices – they may have to go further for trees or shutdown. Some timber farmers may decide re-planting isn’t worth it because of how long it takes a tree to grow.

Cleanup efforts are further complicated by restrictions on burning and a growing risk of wildfires.

“With these trees laying on the ground like pixie sticks, the forest service is unable to get into those vast stands of timber to plow lines around the fire if one does start and put it out. They just can’t get their equipment to it, he says.

He estimates about 85 percent of the trees that have fallen may stay there.

In places like Calhoun County, timber makes up the majority of the local economy's industry. Speaking immediately after the storm, former Blountstown City Council member and lifelong Blountstown resident Steve Bailey highlighted the severity of the problem.

"Eighty percent of our income around here is timber-driven,” Bailey said. “They’re talking about pulling the mills out now, because for the next 30 years they will have no wood here. There’s not a planted pine in probably about 50 miles from here that’s not laying over."

Meanwhile the University of Florida's IFAS Center is trying to assist timber farmers in transitioning to different crops. University of Florida Agriculture Institute Director, Glen Aiken recently told a legislative panel that agriculture in the region will, "become even stronger through improvements we make and trying, for one, to come up with strategies to mitigate damage from future hurricanes.” 

That means exploring new crops like hemp, hops, olives and heartier citrus varieties.