Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tree Planting in the South Continues Decline

Last week I had an opportunity to speak at the annual Southern Forest Tree Improvement Conference at Virginia Tech. The subject that I was asked to talk about was "The Relevance of Tree Improvement to Changing land Ownerships and Objectives". By the time I finished my presentation, I think that I had reversed it and actually talked about the opposite or "The Relevance of Changing land Ownerships and Objectives to Tree Improvement". At any rate, in the process of putting together the information, I created one graph that should be of interest to more than just the geneticists and biotech folks.

Each year Steve Chapman, with the Georgia Forestry Commission, conducts a survey on the prior year's tree planting in the South. He contacts each of the State Foresters for the data and then he compiles it. The project takes a great deal of time and is a very important service to everyone involved with timberland in the South. Actually, given the importance of the Southern forest to the nation, this project has importance to everyone. We should all be thankful to both Steve and the Georgia Forestry Commission for their efforts.

Last year Steve had provided me with the historical data and I looked at the trends which were not real positive. I also noticed that not all State Foresters placed a high priority on cooperating with Georgia on the project. That is very unfortunate. I graphed the data with the intention of posting it here. I decided to try to get the missing data first so I sent emails to the State Foresters that didn't provide Steve with data and asked them to add the missing data. No response.

When I was asked to speak to the Tree Improvement folks, I knew it was important to them to understand how the demand for seedlings was changing so I contacted Steve again to see how he had made out with the 2008 survey. Most of the State Foresters had responded but data from two states was still unavailable. He sent me what he had and I adjusted for missing data by using previuos years data wherever annual data was missing. Not the best numbers but the best available and that is what I used to make this graph.

The picture isn't pretty. Planting dropped off considerably after the 2001 peak and has continued through 2008. Planting levels have not been this low since the 1950's!

Let's look at the reasons behind the decline and speculate about the implications. A year or two ago I was working on a project for a pulp and paper company and we were discussing this trend and one of the Wood Procurement people made the observation that he had not been doing any clearcutting - only thinnings- for a year. So maybe the lack of planting is not so important to the long term wood supply as the graph might indicate.

There is clearly some sound logic behind this observation. During the late 1980's, national planting levels peaked at the three million acre mark and the lion's share of that was in the South. Today we are thinning those plantations and that is what is providing much of the resource for pulp production. In addition, the shift in timberland ownership from pulp and paper companies to institutional owners has probably resulted in a lengthening of pine rotations by a couple of years as the ownership objectives shifted from maximizing mean annual increment to maximizing return on investment. High planting levels of the late 80's and lengthening rotations have clearly provided a thinning opportunity. So..., we are living on the investment of previous tree planters.

The other clear driver behind the lack of planting is the sawtimber market. Low demand resulting in low sawlog prices means reduced sales and reduced final harvest cutting (clearcuts) and that results in a reduced need for planting.

It all sounds pretty logical so maybe the reduced planting is not such a bad thing. The question that is not answered is "Are there a significant number of clearcuts that are not being replanted because of poor markets?" A"Yes" answer would be a bad thing. --Brian

Check out my new web site: Timberland Strategies


  1. Brian...

    Great info regarding tree planting...
    Just one question... regarding:
    "Are there a significant number of clearcuts that are not being replanted because of poor markets?" A"Yes" answer would be a bad thing."....

    Like you, I favor tree planting... but can you tell me why it would be a bad thing for the landowner who does plant trees in a bad market? I would think, with less volume of pines in the future, they would be better off when it comes time to harvest their stands.

    David South

  2. David,
    Sorry, I misread your post. I don't think it would be a bad thing for a landowner who DOES plant trees in a bad market. I agree with your logic.

    I do think that large scale failure to replant following harvest cuts will certainly impact the sustainability of our timberland resource and reduce the future scope of that industry. --Brian

  3. "The environmental community has been a strong proponent of renewable energies up until the point of actually supporting their implementation."

    Brian, I have never heard it said better. The world is awash in energy. We have no "energy crisis" other than what we have brought on ourselves. What we have is a crisis of will, political will. I have been working outside of the Forestry community for 2005 days and counting. I can tell you from the outside that the forestry community is silent.

    I think as you said, confilicting internal interests make it tough to count on the paper industry. I don't blame them. They have obligations to their shareholders to be what they purport to be.

    If Forestry professionals and landowners want to contribute to the debate its going to take getting out beyond the science journals, association meetings and the like.

    The positive message of Forestry, with all its promise and benefits is not only not being represented; its not even on the map.

    I heard Erin Burnett on CNBC last week laughing sarcastically about energy producers in Europe burning wood instead of coal for power generation due to cost considerations as if it was the most rediculous thing she had ever heard "Now we're burning trees for electricity?"

    I don't have the answers, but with carbon caps, taxes and the like making onto the front pages, this might be the chance of a lifetime for the Forestry community to step up and take its rightful place in the debate.

    Thanks for the article. Keep on keep'in on.


  4. Brian, I think the big question is .... how forests should produce in order to eliminate the waste of energy? The market ... prices ... companies ... shareholders .... our leaders ... feel that living planet to not see this and give her the proper value and solution!

  5. In addition to this analysis, what are your thoughts on tne "number" of trees planted, not just acres. It seems that many "powers that be" are predicting a plentiful supply of chips and thus greatly reducing the recommendations for TPA planted. Essentially going right to CNS and bypassing any thinning. I suppose energy markets could change this?

    Question #2: Is there any info out there on the "sustainable" #acres that can be planted? Assumedly the 80s was conversion of many acres of previously unmanaged land. This is a fixed quantity and eventually you will reach an asymptote where you are replanting only 1/30th(or whatever your rotation age) per year on your managed lands.


  6. BoyRDee,
    For many years there have been those recommending the planting of fewer trees per acre. The objective was to shorten the rotation age (and length of the investment). More trees generally met clearer swt but longer rotations and, in some cases, precommercial thinning. Current plantings are already taking biomass into consideration - more TPA. Some people are planting alternate rows with the best genetic stock with the plan of thinning the other rows for pulpwood and biomass. If anything, I suspect we may see more TPA planted in the future.

    Regarding your comment on the "sustainable" number of acres that can be planted - I'm not sure what you mean. There is clearly pressure by the environmental community to halt the conversion of "natural" forests to plantations and they will use legislation and regulation to do that. Current proposed legislation concerning the definition of biomass (Energy Act) and waters of the United States (Clean Water Act) are examples. So if you harvest a plantation you had probably better replant or it will fall into the "natural" classification. --Brian

  7. Here is one publication that pertains to the "sustainable" number of acres to plant in order to no have a decline in southern yellow pine timberland... Another was published in the JOF [South, D.B. and E. R. Buckner. 2003. The decline of southern yellow pine timberland. Journal of Forestry 101(1):30-35.]

    Title: Population growth and the decline of natural Southern yellow pine forests
    South, David B.; Buckner, Edward R.2004

    Source: In: Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS–75. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station. Chapter 29. p. 307-317.

    Population growth has created social and economic pressures that affect the sustainability of naturally regenerated southern yellow pine forests. Major causes of this decline include (1) a shift in public attitudes regarding woods burning (from one favoring it to one that favors fire suppression) and (2) an increase in land values (especially near urban centers). The increase in land values reduces the chance of farmland abandonment, which was common in the first half of the 20th century. Abandoned farmlands provided many of the sites for the naturally regenerated pine stands that are being harvested today. Also, higher land values and higher taxes put pressure on landowners to subdivide their land for development or to establish more profitable tree plantations. These population-related factors and outbreaks of the southern pine bark beetle have resulted in a decline in naturally regenerated southern pines of more than 38 million acres since 1953. As population pressures reduce the incidence of wildfire, prescribed burning, and the abandonment of old fields, the decline in naturally regenerated southern yellow pine will continue. By 2030, only 23 million acres of natural southern yellow pine may remain.

  8. A 13 years old, Ugandan lad Mwiine Derrick has exerted real pressure on the government of Uganda by mobilizing the masses where thousands of Ugandans have already signed his petition to compel the government to plant trees in every part of his country. Hundreds have also confirmed their attendance & promised to escort Derrick to Uganda`s powerful parliament where he will hand the petition to the speaker of the Ugandan parliament. So far several MPs both from NRM ruling party and the opposition have vowed to support Mwiine’s petition all the way through. Uganda is likely to take the lead in fighting global warming!
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    Be there for Uganda!
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    7-Uganda is a food basket!