TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — Trees have grown in what is Mississippi for countless eons, but changes in how they're grown, how they're processed and what they're used for have changed the landscape in the state over the past half-century or so.
In 2006, just before timber prices dropped with the decline in housing starts, forest products had reached a high point, contributing $17.4 billion and 123,659 direct and indirect jobs to the state's economy, according to Mississippi State University research.
"The size of the industry in terms of dollar value sales and jobs is definitely larger than decades ago," said James Henderson, MSU associate extension professor and one of the authors of the 2008 study.
One of the first big advances was the advent of the Counce, Tenn., paper mill, followed by another massive mill in Courtland, Ala. Pulpwood to supply the paper mills gave growers a new market for small trees, especially pines.
Landowners benefited doubly from cash payments for the pulpwood harvest itself and from the faster growth from trees that remained after thinning harvests, eventually boosting yields of trees for higher-priced products such as lumber, plywood or poles.
The pulp market, however, is a big question mark in today's wood products industry.
"In the U.S., we have a declining pulp/paper sector partly because of cost of labor and also because of regulatory compliance," Henderson said. "That's a substantial cost. A lot of major paper companies U.S.-based companies close mills in the U.S. and open them in Asia, where they don't have those compliance costs."
The International Paper plant in Courtland, Ala., is a casualty of that pressure. Formerly a major market for the region's pulpwood, it began cutting production last year and is now closed.
The U.S. housing market over several decades drove domestic demand for lumber and other tree products, making timber a more attractive crop for marginal farmland and justified more intensive management.
"Our forest products industry in the South is tied to the U.S. residential construction market," Henderson said.
While the Pacific Northwest ships much of its timber and wood products to Asia, he said, "We in the South have always been very dependent on domestic consumption."
The South has a singular advantage in responding to domestic demand, however: The U.S. government owns much of the timber in the Pacific Northwest, while corporations, institutions, families and individuals own most of that in the South. As a result, it is subject to fewer regulations that add to either the cost or the timeline in harvesting.
Governmental policy has played a large role in shaping the timber industry and with it Mississippi's landscape.
"When I first became aware of the timber industry, my father was one of the first people in Lafayette County to plant pine trees," said land and timber owner Kaye Bryant of Oxford. "When the YLT (Yazoo-Little Tallahatchie flood control area) planting program came in, he was one of the first to join it. It aimed to correct the failed experiment of planting kudzu to control erosion. The YLT program said we should plant pine trees, which have a deep taproot, to stabilize soil. That was the early 1950s."
Post-war housing demand and the expansion of utilities fueled much of the government's promotion of tree farming.
"Most all building required pine timber for framing, and there was a building boom in the early 1950s," Bryant said. "At that time, all utility poles were made of creosoted logs. If you could grow a pine tree that was straight and tall and not malformed in any way, you could get a prime price for it."
Paper companies also promoted forest planting and management among small landholders.
"They would have a forester get out in the community and work with landowners to replant, and they would often even give free pine seedlings," said Robert Howell, a consulting forester from Baldwyn. "All that was stimulated from the need of these mills to have a reliable wood source."
Some aspects of timbering that were common just a few decades ago are essentially gone.
Fire towers were once vital to spotting smoke plumes and dispatching wildfire suppression crews have been replaced by aerial and even satellite detection.
Harvest of pulpwood by chainsaw and bobtruck has given way to machines that cut and de-limb tree-length logs, making the process far less labor-intensive and far more capital-intensive. Tied to that change, railroads that hauled pulpwood from local woodyards to paper mills now sit idle in many towns, while 18-wheelers loaded with those logs make 200-mile round trips to mills in the region.
"We used to have a lot of smaller trucks, and the wood companies, because of their concern about reliability of producers, decided they would have satellite buying sites," said Howell. "They had woodyards in every little town Maben, Holly Springs, New Albany, Booneville."
One forestry task where hand labor still dominates is reforestation, said Don Thompson, a consulting forester from Golden. While machines can transplant year-old trees in open fields or pastures, humans with hand tools are more effective at planting such seedlings where rough terrain or harvest debris would stymie a mechanical planter.
New products and technologies have provided new markets for timber products, too, in the past 50 years. Oriented strand board, a cheaper plywood substitute often used in subfloors, roof sheathing and even furniture, uses trees that are too crooked and knotty for traditional plywood or lumber.
"Chip-and-saw" technology allows harvesters to extract more valuable two-by-fours from the hearts of small trees while utilizing the rest for OSB. The rayon favored by many Asian garment manufacturers is made with dissolved pulp, another recent advance in wood-products exporting.
A host of technologies are involved in intensively managed tree farming.
"Private landowners have, to a great extent, realized the value of our timber land and are managing it and reaping the benefits of it," Howell said. "Because of the research and development that have given us genetic improvements and herbicides and fertilization and new tree spacings, we've improved the productivity per acre.
"Compressing time is really important. What we've done is to get a tree that tall and that big in a shorter amount of time," he said.
In previous generations, many landowners didn't spend any resources on managing timber, assuming it to be an once-in-a-lifetime harvest. With improved genetics and care, however, one owner may conceivably see two terminal harvests.
"I'm cutting timber that I planted, and I'm almost doing it twice," Howell said.
Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com