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Study shows wood products markets reel long after hurricanes subside

Virginia McDaniel
Southern Research Station
February 15, 2023

A landowner walking through a stand of new young pine trees.  A full grown pine tree stand shows close behind.
Carbon storage increased and markets recovered fastest when stands were replanted soon after damaged logs were removed. (USDA Forest Service photo by Virginia McDaniel).

When Hurricane Michael made landfall in October 2018, it was a Category 4 storm that damaged more than 6 million acres of forest and destroyed 10 billion cubic feet of timber across Alabama, Georgia and Florida. That’s enough timber to frame 3.4 million houses!

In Hurricane Michael’s aftermath, the landscape looked as if every tree had snapped in two in some places. After the hurricane, mills were flooded with salvaged pine and hardwood timber — causing timber prices to fall. A year later, when fallen trees were too rotten or damaged to be salvaged, lumber prices rose. With a scarcity of timber in the area, landowners who still had standing trees were able to sell them at higher prices, and the increased cost passed on to the mills that make wood products.

Hurricanes have short- and long-term effects on people, their property and economies. In the case of Hurricane Michael and the wood products market, the event deeply destabilized the delicate balance of supply and demand, causing prices to fluctuate. Unstable prices can hurt producers, as they are unable to plan effectively. They hurt consumers, who are often stuck paying higher prices. Sadly, the negative effects of Hurricane Michael on the local wood products economy will likely be felt for decades.

Understanding the effects of hurricanes on forests, forest products and markets is crucial to forest landowners, mill owners and the people who rely on forest products every day. This is even more important with the potential of increased storm activities due to climate change.

Forest Service Research Economist Jesse Henderson from the Southern Research Station explored the effects of hurricanes on forest products markets in a recent study. The study also recommended steps timberland owners can take to mitigate damage from hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Because there is little data that characterizes how hurricanes damage forests, the researchers used measurements from Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm that hit South Carolina in September 1989, as a surrogate to answer some questions.

“We used data from both hurricanes and modeled different scenarios 60 years into the future to understand forest sector and carbon storage changes after the storms,” said Henderson.

A large stack of cut pine trees harvested after a hurricane
Post-hurricane harvesting operations recovered a considerable amount of usable timber, as evidenced by these pine logs ready for loading and transport to a mill. (USDA Forest Service photo by Jason Cooper).

Henderson found that after a natural disaster, not all wood products are affected equally. For instance, the study shows that the markets for pine pulpwood, which is used to make paper products, recovered faster than pine sawtimber markets.

“Pulp sourcing has more flexibility, meaning that a wider range of tree sizes and species can be used to make pulp, which makes for a faster recovery,” says Henderson. “The main driver of pulp’s faster recovery is that young trees take a shorter time to grow than older ones.”

The model also shows that markets recover fastest when damaged forests are replanted soon after logs are salvaged. When pine stands were replanted and after supplies recovered – between 10 and 20 years – pine pulpwood prices returned to baseline levels. But pine sawtimber prices returned to normal only in the case with the highest replanting rate.

However, only about 1% of hardwoods were salvaged following Hurricane Michael. In addition, hardwoods are typically slow growing, taking more time to increase to a marketable size. The model suggests that hardwood markets may be affected for decades.

Replanting large numbers of trees quickly could have benefits beyond the timber marketplace. Reforestation also may counteract the release of carbon caused by hurricane damage. Despite the damage to millions of acres of forests, the model suggests that if more replanting occurs, the amount of carbon stored would increase.

The research underscores the need to act quickly after a natural disaster. It also illustrates the need for extensive reforestation capabilities, like seedling nurseries, to replant trees following natural disasters.  

The Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees Act, or REPLANT Act, prioritizes land in need of reforestation due to natural disasters that are unlikely to naturally regrow on their own. The act will quadruple investments to support the Forest Service planting 1.2 billion trees over the next 10 years. The act also includes a federal subsidy system that considers proximity to sawmills when funding federal land restoration projects.

A stand of trees with heavy damage from Hurricane Michael
Hurricane Michael left forests throughout the South with a mix of live, standing dead, broken and wind-thrown trees. (USDA Forest Service photo by Jason Cooper).

The Forest Service plays an important role in helping to restore forests affected by hurricanes and tropical storms. To support those who work with forest products and other crops, the agency, in partnership with the USDA Southeast Climate Hub, offers a series of commodity guides to help farmers and foresters prepare for and recover from hurricanes. The Pine Forest Landowners Guide focuses upon pre-hurricane planning and post-hurricane evaluation and recovery actions that forest owners and managers can take.

In addition, through programs such as those offered through State, Private, and Tribal Forestry and Reforestation, Nurseries and Genetic Resources, the Forest Service provides technical support to help procure supplies and equipment needed to rebuild and repair nursery infrastructure.

Nationwide, there are approximately 1,500 forest and conservation nurseries producing over 1.4 billion seedlings annually to be outplanted on federal, state, tribal, private and industrial lands. The agency’s nursery system and seed banks encompass six nurseries and two specialized seed facilities across the country. These nurseries produce about 25 million tree seedlings each year, along with other native plants, such as shrubs, grasses and wildflowers.

Learn more about how  the Forest Service is working to restore forests.