This week members of the forestry community are hard at work in Northwest Florida after the devastating winds of Hurricane Michael.
When Michael slammed through their area on Wednesday, October 10th about two weeks ago, over three million acres of Florida’s forestland in eleven counties were affected. Hurricane Michael pummeled these beautiful forests, some of which will take generations to recover.
This week is Working Forests Work Week in Florida, and members of the forestry community will work all this week to help people understand the business of forests and trees in our state. Last year I posted about this. You can read it here.
Forests are Important to Florida
What you may have learned last year is that a working forest is one that produces economic value to an area. There are over 17 million acres of forests in Florida, mostly in the north and central regions of our state, which is more than half of our state’s total land area. Almost 65% of them are in private ownership.
But what does that mean to those lands in the path of Hurricane Michael?
Well, it means a lot, a whole lot! Hurricane Michael seems to have picked the least populated path to go through Florida. The eleven mostly rural counties affected depend totally on agriculture, and trees are their biggest crop. The initial value estimate of these altered, damaged, or destroyed timbers in Florida is staggering.
Of Florida’s 17 million acres of forest, 2.8 million were affected, that’s 16.4%. Almost 350,000 acres suffered catastrophic timber damage.
That means an estimated 164 million trees were destroyed. But those are only the trees on acreage with catastrophic damage. Another 1.04 million acres have severe timber damage and 1.4 million acres have moderate timber damage.
These numbers include not only pine acreage, but also mixed uplands and bottomlands. Plus, damaged were pulp mills and sawmills.
A Catastrophic Financial Loss to the Industry
The financial losses to the timber companies and private landowners are devastating. The total estimated timber damage is over $1.289 billion, but these are only the immediate and direct impacts of the hurricane.
Floridians are used to these hurricanes, and previous experience and knowledge indicates that there will be even more long-term impacts and losses. These same industries will spend added dollars for significant debris removal of the timber that can be salvaged. Also, reforestation could be as high as $240 million.
Some timber may be still standing, but will lose value due to wind damage, such as poor form and wind sweep.
Wildfires may pose problems due to upwards of 100 tons of forest fuels on the ground per acre.
Finally, long term there will be potential losses due to the reduction of jobs and forest industry in the area. Not all tree owners will replant.
It takes anywhere from 20-25 years of hard work and diligence to grow a pine forest. That is why these losses are so painful to so many. The private landowners especially have such a passion for their lands.
So Who was Affected
The three counties with the most catastrophic damages were Bay, Calhoun and Gulf Counties. Bay and Gulf are coastal counties, but interior Calhoun’s forest lands totaled 88.1% catastrophic loss. Gulf which includes little Mexico Beach lost almost 85% of their forest lands.
The Cleanup Has Started
For a short time many of these areas will have an increase in forestry-related work. Loggers, tree nurseries, truck drivers, and others will find themselves busy over the next few months clearing and salvaging what can be salvaged, while others will be replanting.
Many Recreational Lands Affected
This area of Florida is also cherished for its recreational value. It is full of beautiful state and national forests used for hiking, camping, hunting and other recreational activities. These industries will be affected as well.
These lands were also crucial to our environmental systems. The recovery of these resources matter, not only to our state but this region especially.
To add insult to injury we are entering winter in Florida, and normally we get cooler and drier here in north Florida. Wildfire conditions increase normally during the winter, but this year may be worse due to all the downed trees and dry debris. Added to this are crossed fire lines, inaccessibility to timberlands, and the chances for fire increase exponentially.
Last weekend, my daughter, brother-in-law, and I made a relief run to a little town called Howard’s Creek just north of Port St. Joe in Gulf County. We witnessed this devastation first hand, and many of the photos above were taken then. Already, though, the recovery efforts have begun. Timber crews were already at work removing downed trees in these forestlands.
These are survivors. The people of Florida are survivors. The work has begun, and this is how working forests work in our state even during a disaster.