Mississippi loggers struggle in 2009

Published 1:27 am Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mississippi logging companies are struggling to survive the decline in new home construction, but the state’s timber harvest remained steady in 2008 because of an increased demand for plupwood.

Although the final value of the 2008 timber crop will not be available until February 2009, a preliminary estimate indicates the crop was worth $1.16 billion, a 5.7 percent increase from its $1.1 billion value in 2007. In 2006, the crop’s value was $1.21 billion, which was a post-Hurricane Katrina drop from 2005’s watermark value of $1.45 billion.

Declining demand for lumber and paneling for new homes made 2008 a “tough year,” said James Henderson, forestry specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

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Less construction means lower demand for sawtimber and other wood-based building materials. Harvest, milling and finishing operations for those products dwindle or cease as a result of decreasing demand, Henderson said.

Price increases for pine pulpwood caused by rising demand were sufficient to offset some of the decline, Henderson said.

Higher demand for pulpwood occurred when wood chip supplies were reduced as manufacturers scaled back production of solid wood products. A relatively strong pulp and paper market earlier in 2008 also raised demand and resulted in higher prices for pulpwood.

Mississippi’s timber crop harvest has been valued at more than $1 billion annually over the last 15 years. The state’s forest industry contributes more than $17 billion to Mississippi’s economy.

“Demand and production of building materials, wood products and pulpwood and the prices the industry will pay for these supplies are the factors that influence the rise and fall of the crops annual value,” Henderson said.

Forests cover more than 19.6 million acres in Mississippi, which is 63 percent of the state’s total land area. The forest industry owns 10 percent of that acreage.

Unlike the state’s timber harvest, Mississippi logging companies felt the full blow of declining housing starts.

Some firms went out of business in 2008, while others left Mississippi.

“Since 1996, more than 50 percent of the logging companies in Mississippi have moved away,” said John Auel, Mississippi State University Extension logging education coordinator. “Others have parked their equipment and are working other jobs until the economy picks up again.”

Full-time loggers deliver more than 90 percent of raw wood materials for manufacturing. Most of these businesses have invested more than $1 million in high-tech equipment, a highly skilled work force, continuing education and liability insurance.

Although most logging operations are mechanized, the occupation is considered one of the most dangerous because of the inherent hazards in felling trees and the skill needed to maximize safety and efficiency when harvesting, loading and transporting.

“Loggers are keenly aware of the environment in which they operate,” Auel said.

A bright spot for the forest industry may be the potential of making biofuel from forest byproducts. Researchers are investigating environmentally friendly methods of biomass breakdown that are effective, efficient and affordable.

“Forestry is a cyclical industry of good times and hard times,” said MSU forestry research associate Marc Measells. “Research into wood-based biofuel may offer a way to survive some of the economic downturns that inevitably occur.”