Monday, March 3, 2008

Longleaf Pine

If you read my Blog through email subscription rather than visiting the Blog site, you probably have forgotten the byline. So..., The Timberland Blog: Examining the changes in timberland ownership and what those changes might mean. The pulp and paper industry was very focused on maximizing growth as opposed to the financial return focused on by the institutional investors. Management objectives are a primary key to what the future forest will look like. That's fact.

Way back in '67 while working on a major cruise/appraisal for the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, I remember vividly a sign near Washington, Georgia that said “Wilkes County, Gone to Grass”. I was with friend and mentor Kenney P. Funderburke, who said wryly “the sign should say, Gone to Loblolly Pine!”. Times change, economics change, landowners change, management objectives change, the forest changes. Like Wilkes County, the South went from natural forest, to cotton, to pasture, to loblolly pine for fiber production to whatever is next. What is next? For some of the Southern forest, maybe a return to the longleaf pine that once dominated this landscape. Management objective of optimizing financial return permitting.
If you are familiar with the longleaf and loblolly, the comparisons jump into your head very quickly. Longleaf is straight. Loblolly is crooked. Loblolly grows faster (at least initially). Loblolly occupies a broader range of sites. Longleaf is straight.

The lower pulpwood prices, combined with a focus on financial return of the new owners, provides an opportunity for longleaf to reassert itself. Back in the days when the land was managed by Native Americans, the objective of management was to burn the forest to prepare it for agriculture, provide nitrogen fertilization, reduce ticks and chiggers, improve hunting, grow broomstraw for housing, and to be able to see enemies lurking in the forest. That's some pretty powerful reasons to burn. At that time, the EPA was less concerned with smoke, environmentalists were less concerned with pine monoculture, and there were fewer lurking lawyers in the forests. The point here, is that the longleaf forest was not “natural”, it was created by its managers based on the objectives of management. These managers created a pine forest of an estimated 60 – 90 million acres that was reduced to less than three million acres in 1996 by a series of landowners whose objectives were cotton, rice, beef, soybeans, and wood fiber production. If longleaf is to expand replacing some of the loblolly acreage, that expansion must fit with the objectives of the new management – that being financial performance as opposed to the fiber productivity objective of the pulp and paper industry. I think it can do it. So do the sawmilling families that have owned and managed the longleaf remnants for the past 75 years.

The fact that longleaf is so straight can go a long way in a comparative economic analysis. The Longleaf Alliance has some financial analysis on its web site which illustrates the gains from increased pole production and the increased value of the poles over sawtimber. I didn't notice the increase in proportion of sawtimber to pulpwood characterized by longleaf stands although it may have been there. The growth and yield models do show that loblolly's growth advantage diminishes or disappears as the rotation age increases. In addition, nursery and silvicultural improvements have reduced the amount of time it takes to get the seedlings up and out of the grass stage thereby reducing the rotation age and improving the financial performance of longleaf. At any rate, it looks to me like the economics are there, at least on some sites.

I don't want to forget us Family Forest owners. Collectively, we own a lot more of the former longleaf forest than the institutional investors by a long shot. And our “management objectives” are generally broader than those of the investment community. The Feds are working to help us understand and to put money in our pockets if we will convert to longleaf and do it their way. So far, it seems to be working with a couple of hundred thousand acres being planted each year. That's enough to turn the tide and longleaf acreage is actually increasing now. It may not be increasing much but at least the decline has been arrested.

So..., what does all this mean? We are in the early stages of a change in the South's forest which will in fact see more of the landscape revert to the beauty of the historic longleaf pine forest that defined the “pineywoods” of the Old South. There is something about longleaf that stirs the soul, loblolly doesn't. --Brian


  1. i would invite you to north Mississippi to show you some impressive loblolly stands that are produing quality utility poles

  2. Just to add to my last comment, I agree with your general thoughts about Longleaf forests. I buy and mark poles in north MS and although this area does not produce the volume of poles that S. Alabama does genetic improvements in loblolly stands are producing pole timber as early as 30 years old, if allowed to grow that long.