(12/14/20) RAGLEY, La. — The Louisiana timber industry continues to deal with the effects of the 2020 tropical weather that ravaged the state’s forestry sector.
Forestry consultant Daniel Rush of Oakdale had planned to thin a 250-acre stand of timber near Ragley in 2021, but Hurricane Laura struck first. “Hurricane Laura thinned it for us,” he said.
Rush arranged to have all the trees cut on a large portion of the tract after the storms. Some of the timber was damaged badly, and removing the surviving trees will be difficult because of the fallen trees.
Harvesting timber is completely mechanized, and skid steer tractors with large cutting blades have replaced chainsaws. But LSU AgCenter forestry specialist Robbie Hutchins said that machinery is designed to cut standing timber, not trees that are on the ground.
The hurricane’s effects are continuing to affect landowners’ bottom line. Timber that would have fetched $25 a ton might only realize $2 a ton because it is cut as salvage, Hutchins said.
Overall, state and federal estimates have determined the 2020 storms affected 920,000 acres in Louisiana, causing losses totaling $1.4 billion, Hutchins said.
The window for salvaging downed timber is narrowing as the trees start to deteriorate. “For a lot of it, the shelf life is diminishing now,” he said.
Many of the trees still standing have few limbs remaining, and their survivability is uncertain. “Is there enough crown to keep that tree alive?” Hutchins asked, gazing at a spindly tree with most of its limbs knocked off by hurricane winds.
Hutchins said more mills were in operation after Hurricane Rita. But with mills closing, like one near DeQuincy, timber landowners with small tracts have fewer options for selling their trees, and that usually means the market price will be lower.
Looking at the long-term implications, Hutchins said landowners now must decide if they are willing to invest in reforestation. Many did that after Rita, and now their investment has been hurt by the 2020 storms, he said.
The difficult situation with low prices paid for Louisiana timber comes at a time when lumber prices are at an all-time high. “That is a huge disconnect,” Hutchins said.
Lumber prices soared this year after many mills in other parts of the U.S. closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks among workers. Regional lumber inventories were depleted, and prices drastically reflected that shortage nationwide, he said.
But supply remained steady in Louisiana, and mills had plenty of timber, which kept stumpage prices low.
With so much dead wood on the ground, the potential threat of damaging insect and disease outbreaks along with wildfires are possible. Beetles could attack trees that are still in recovery from the storm, Hutchins explained.
Rush said forest fire potential will be high this summer, but he said fires could have the benefit of suppressing insects.
Daniel Rush, a timber consultant from Oakdale, surveys a stand of damaged timber near Ragley, Louisiana. Rush is worried that the timber on the ground could provide fuel for wildfires and allow damaging insects to thrive. Photo by Bruce Schultz/LSU AgCenter
Shattered stumps of trees snapped in half by Hurricane Laura remain in a stand of 250 acres of timber near Ragley, Louisiana. Now the landowner has to decide whether to spend money to replant trees on the land. Photo by Bruce Schultz/LSU AgCenter