Published Feb. 19, 2016
The forestry sector in South Carolina has an annual economic impact of $18.6 billion, employs more than 90,000 people, is the largest harvested crop at $759 million and is the No. 1 export commodity from the Port of Charleston at $1.5 billion, according to the Forestry Commission.
The majority of the forestland in the state, 70%, is owned by private individuals, according to Walt McPhail, chairman of the commission and president of the Greenville Forestry and Wildlife Society.
“One of the problems we’re facing right now is that not enough of our forest land is properly managed. If we could improve our forest management even 10%, it would result in a tremendous increase in revenues,” he said.
McPhail said if landowners actively manage their forests, the forests will return the favor by producing higher quality products and amenities. From the time a pine seedling is planted, it takes 35-40 years before it reaches full maturity. Thinning the understory, harvesting trees at the proper time and replanting new trees are all critical to maintaining a robust woodland.
Clemson Cooperative Extension agent Carolyn Dawson spends much of her time educating and assisting forest landowners. Playing the role of tree detective, Dawson examines forest health, identifies tree species and helps landowners draw up a sort of long-term road map to success.
“As the educator for Clemson, the first thing I do is determine the landowners’ objectives,” said Dawson, who is the area forestry extension agent in the Upstate. “They might want a rotation of pines with the final product being poles. Others might want to just grow pulpwood. Some will want to maintain their land to best attract deer and turkey for hunting. And then there are people who only want to hold on to their slice of paradise. Everybody has different objectives in forestry. It’s my job to help them achieve these objectives in the most effective fashion.”
South Carolina’s trees are split about 50-50 between pine and hardwood types. But in the southeastern United States, pines are the most valuable to grow and harvest. To further emphasize the importance of forest management, pine plantations — defined as stands of pine that are crisply managed, harvested and replanted — represent 25% of the state’s timberland but produce 50% of the timber cut each year.
“How much money pine farmers make depends on their management schemes,” said McPhail, who co-owns 1,000 acres of well managed pine timberland in Belton. “If you’re going to be harvesting timber, you don’t want to leave everything up to Mother Nature. Managing a forest is like tending a garden. You choose good soil. You plant good seeds. You thin them. You fertilize. And after all that, you can expect to produce an abundant crop.”
As a continuing effect from the 2008 economic downturn, housing starts, a crucial component to increasing demand for timber, have yet to substantially rebound.
“Prices of timber are directly related to the housing market,” Dawson said. “Low timber prices are prompting landowners to delay harvesting their saw timber, which is creating an overabundance across the state. So even if the housing market were to suddenly take off, landowners might not get the skyrocketing prices they’ve been banking on for a while.”
S.C. state forester Gene Kodama said global demand for wood and wood products continues to grow along with the world’s population.
“The South produces more wood than any single country and is the ‘wood basket’ of the world, with South Carolina playing a key role,” he said. “The Forestry Commission has led the state’s forest industry on a quest to increase its economic impact to $20 billion by the end of 2015. The industry has recovered from the Great Recession and grown to $18.6 billion based on 2013 data, so the $20 billion goal is in sight. This will be confirmed late in 2016, when 2015 data is made available.”
Erratic weather has also recently affected forestry. The February 2014 ice storm damaged young forests across about half of the state, and October 2014’s rain and flooding degraded young plantations, disrupted logging and mill production, ruined many private forest roads and destroyed thousands of seedlings in the middle and lower portions of the state. Some mature trees are likely to suffer long term as well.
“The effects of October’s torrential rains vary tremendously from region to region in South Carolina,” McPhail said. “In the areas that weren’t severely impacted by the storms, the rain was actually beneficial, replenishing the aquifer to compensate for the droughts we’ve had over the past four or five years. But if you were unfortunate enough to live in the areas that were severely impacted, you might have significant damage. Landowners will have to take a wait-and-see attitude. Unless they start to see dying or diseased trees, they should not go in there and just clear cut. It takes years for trees to reach maturity, so you don’t want to panic and harvest them before they reach their highest value.”