Missouri timber industry is struggling

Saturday, July 18, 2009 | 6:17 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Missouri's timber industry is struggling with the "double whammy" of the recession and damaging May storms.

Thousands of trees are now awaiting removal before rot sets in, and sawmills are reporting a glut of lumber.

"This storm couldn't have come at a worse time for us," said Brian Brookshire, director of the Missouri Forest Products Association. "It's a double whammy."

The storms churned up winds that reached speeds of up to 90 mph.

The Missouri Department of Conservation says 204 million board feet of timber on 113,000 acres were damaged. More than half of that was on private land, with the rest in the Mark Twain National Forest or conservation areas. The hardest-hit counties were Reynolds, Madison, Shannon, Dent, Iron and Bollinger.

"I've had landowners call me and say that they lost trees on 80 acres and that was all of their retirement," said Kyle Cunningham, a Madison County-based forestry and small business development specialist with the MU Extension. "They're just devastated."

The federal government chipped in about $1 million to help landowners with salvage operations, but the sign-up period already has passed, leaving many in the lurch.

Foresters expect about half of the downed trees to be salvageable, but loggers must work quickly.

They have about a year to harvest hardwood trees such as oaks and maples before rot sets in. But pine trees, which are much less hardy, have only a few weeks before they succumb to fungus or beetle infestations in warm weather.

And landowners are likely to receive paltry payments from the sawmills, which are being inundated with downed timber.

"I've had to turn a lot of it down," said Steve Spencer, who owns a Salem sawmill.

The economic downturn already had hit the sawmills before the storms hit. The Missouri Forest Products Association estimates that in the past 18 months, timber industry revenue has fallen 25 percent.

"Really, had I not downsized a few years ago, and had a full crew, I would have had to shut down six months ago," Spencer said.

Much of the problem is the result of slumping sales of high-grade lumber used in the struggling housing industry.

Brookshire said Missouri is able to fall back on the sales of railroad ties and wood pallets; production of those items is down, but not as much as grade lumber.

"We've got a very diverse industry here in Missouri, and we can be thankful for that," he said.


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