The thick ice from last month’s winter storm snapped enough trees and limbs to do an estimated $360 million in immediate timber damage in South Carolina, or the financial equivalent of a full year of timber harvest in the state.
State Forester Gene Kodama issued a Forest Disaster Declaration on Wednesday, saying only Hurricane Hugo in 1989 did more damage to timber in the state.
The disaster declaration makes some of the resources of the State Forestry Commission available to private timberland owners who suffered damage. The main impact of the declaration, however, is raising awareness among the public about the impact of the storm and encouraging landowners to salvage and replant trees.
“The raw material supply chain for our state’s largest manufacturing sector has suffered from this natural disaster,” Kodama said. “The storm has impacted hundreds of thousands of individual forest landowners and multiple corporations.”
The worst of the damage is spread across 24 counties in a 70-mile-wide swath from Edgefield and Hampton counties on the Georgia border to Dillon and Horry counties on the North Carolina border. Damage covers 1.5 million acres of timberland, according to the Forestry Commission.
For some perspective, the timber damage in the state from Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was $1 billion, and the damage from a similar ice storm in 2004 was $95 million. Adjusting for inflation, the 2014 storm caused about three times as much damage as the 2004 storm, and about one-sixth as much timber damage as Hugo.
“This is not to be taken lightly,” said Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, whose district was hit particularly hard. “This devastation will affect your pocketbook all over the state of South Carolina.”
Kodama noted that many families in the state sell timber on their land to support their retirement or to pay college tuition. “To an individual landowner, this could be life-changing,” he said.
More than 13 million acres in the state are managed for timber production, and 88 percent of that is privately owned. The harvest from those forests supports a timber products industry with a $17 billion annual impact in the state, according to state forestry officials.
The many mills and manufacturing companies that rely on forest products will have to adapt to an oversupply of timber from storm salvage efforts this year, and some shortages in the future because damaged plots will require 15 to 20 years to grow a new crop.
“Unlike most manufacturing that can order its raw materials from all over the world, forestry cannot do that,” Kodama said. “Forest product manufacturing is almost entirely reliant on the wood supply that exists within about 50 to 100 miles of each and every mill.”
But because many parts of the state were spared the worst damage and because older, healthy trees came through the storm in better shape, the future of the industry is sound, Kodama said.
The key to ensuring long-term industry health is clearing out storm-damaged trees that could encourage disease and pine beetle infestations, and then replanting to start the multi-decade growing cycle over again. The $360 million damage figure could increase if diseases or pine beetles take hold in unhealthy trees.
Landowners who suffered damage might be eligible for federal help. The U.S. Farm Service Agency announced Wednesday that it has put South Carolina under the Emergency Forest Restoration Program. Starting Monday, timberland owners have 60 days to have their timber tracts inspected by a registered forester to verify severe damage.
Once they have that certification, they can clear cut the land and get federal funds to help pay for replanting, said Harry Ott, a former state representative who now heads the Farm Service Agency in South Carolina.