A staggering number of trees ruined by hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast could lead to a strain on the pulp and paper industry, the loss of privately held timberland and, eventually, higher prices for home construction.
Winds and storm-surge waters knocked down billions of board feet of hardwoods, pine and other species used for building homes and making paper.
Estimated timber losses from Katrina total 15 billion to 19 billion board feet from 5 million acres of damaged forestland in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Katrina's winds damaged an average of 20 percent of the timber that was standing before the storm. Near coastal areas, damage rates reached as high as 40 percent, the USDA said.
Timber losses in Louisiana, from damage done by Katrina, are estimated at $1 billion, said Janet Tompkins, editor of the Louisiana Forestry Association's Forests & People magazine, citing data from the Louisiana State University AgCenter and the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Another $226 million in losses is estimated from Hurricane Rita, according to the department.
The Mississippi Forestry Commission estimated a loss of $1.3 billion in commercial timber. The state produces about $1.1 billion worth of commercial timber every year.
According to the Mississippi Farm Bureau Web site, one year's worth of timber production was laid on the ground in one day.
Analysts with the National Association of Realtors are projecting that at least 200,000 homes were destroyed or will have to be demolished.
"Lumber and plywood prices are going to be higher. But our analysis is that a lot of these trees, there is going to be a need for them," said Walter Molony, spokesman for the association. "The trees destroyed by Katrina can be put to almost immediate use."
In Louisiana alone, more than twice the annual harvest was destroyed, and all that wood can't be consumed immediately.
"Right now it's a feast, in a way, but next year and other years, there will be a famine because we had more than a year's worth of timber come down," Tompkins said.
After Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, about 22 percent of downed timber was recovered, and at only 10 percent of its pre-hurricane value, Tompkins said.
"You have a whole lot down and a product that isn't going to be as good as usual, and it's going to cost you more to remove it," Tompkins said. "The value of the saw timber begins to go down rapidly. The pulp wood is valued less, but as time goes on, you have a glut in the market."
A decline in manufacturing infrastructure is possible, said Larry Wiseman, president of the American Forest Foundation. After all the salvaged wood is used, there will be either only very young trees or no trees left, he said.
"So the sawmills and the pulp and paper mills will have to look elsewhere" and may go to larger U.S. markets or overseas markets, making it difficult for small landowners to compete, Wiseman said. "That means the landowners who don't have damage will face some pretty unfriendly markets."
In Mississippi and Louisiana, small, private landowners or families hold 67 percent of commercially farmed timberland. So the hurricanes could also speed up a trend environmental groups are already lamenting, Wiseman said.
"We are losing about 1.5 million acres a year of family forestland development," Wiseman said. "This is a crisis that will present one of the greatest environmental problems our nation will fight over coming decades."
Timber and forestlands serve as green spaces around streams and rivers and other habitat for animals. So if small, private landowners, seeing their income from timber drop, are forced to sell to developers, fewer habitats may remain open and urban sprawl may develop, Wiseman said.
"Some of those people can resell that land itself at a bigger value than what the tree investment would be," Tompkins said. "For those with the choice to make, it comes down to a lifestyle choice or a financial one."