Many Arkansans rightfully take pride in the forests of our state. Arkansas is 56 percent forested, covered by a multitude of tree species ranging from the iconic shortleaf pine to our oak, maple and hickory hardwoods. We love to drive through these forests, enjoy the scenic vistas, and marvel at their efficiency in cleaning our air and water and providing habitat for wildlife.
However, there's one thing most people don't know: 81 percent of Arkansas' forests are privately owned and just over two-thirds are owned by families.
For generations, our fellow Arkansans have been taking care of and managing the forest resources that we see all around us and benefit from. And I do mean managing, as it takes a great deal of investment to maintain a well-functioning forest, with ongoing treatments to ward off insects and disease, to reduce risk of wildfire, and to create specific wildlife habitats.
New data released recently from the U.S. Forest Service in the National Woodland Owners Survey show that the majority of private forest owners in our state, as well as across the country, say their primary reasons for owning forestland are aesthetics, wildlife habitat and nature protection. However, due to taxes and the cost of ongoing management, most say they also must have a return on their investment in those forests in order to keep them on the landscape for generations. This is where the second key to forest sustainability comes in--strong markets for forest products.
With high tree species diversity in our state comes an equally diverse array of forest products industries that provide private landowners with markets and revenue when it comes time to harvest their trees. They are scattered all across our state--mills for paper, lumber, plywood and veneer and secondary products such as furniture and boxes and crates. In recent decades, however, the number of mills and opportunities for landowners to market their timber investments has decreased.
There are many reasons for this, including the rise of digital media displacing paper products and the housing crash in the late 2000s, with the outcome for our forests and forest owners being quite significant. Fewer markets means less harvesting of timber, and an abundance of trees growing on the landscape. In Arkansas, data from the U.S. Forest Service-Forest Inventory and Analysis program shows that our forests are currently growing 39 percent more volume than is being removed through all causes including harvest, insects and disease, and wildfire. This trend is evident in both pine species (38 percent) and hardwoods (40 percent).
To support landowners in keeping their acreage in forests and not converting those forests to agriculture or development, we continuously need to be looking to create new markets for this forest growth on the landscape. Recently, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed an agreement with Sun Paper, a Chinese company, to build a $1 billion pulp mill in Arkadelphia, which will be a boon to our logging and construction industries, but also a needed market for landowners sitting on acres of dense standing pulpwood.
Arkansas is also in the process of becoming home to two wood-pellet plants planned for Monticello and Pine Bluff, which will have a combined capacity of over 1 million tons of pellets annually. The Pine Bluff facility alone represents a $229 million investment in Arkansas by the plant operator, Highland Pellets, and it will create 68 direct and almost 1,000 indirect new jobs for our state.
Projects like these will enable biomass from our forests to be exported and used to generate renewable energy in Europe, creating a climate benefit as our standing trees and forest regrowth sequester carbon emissions. The emerging market for wood pellets coming from Arkansas and the rest of the South is good news for landowners, as it represents a revenue stream for low-value trees, thinnings, and residual material left on-site from harvesting for sawtimber.
The steady growth in demand for renewable wood energy has offered an economic boost for Arkansas forestry. This new market, alongside other forest products both emerging and established, provides added opportunities and value for landowners and a push in the direction of keeping forest as forests.
Arkansas has always been a leader nationally in forest sustainability and health, but only through the engagement of tens of thousands of family forest owners and the strength and diversity of our forest products markets.
Continued investment in both--the people and the markets--will help us stay at the top. Continued investment in both will keep our forests beautiful and healthy!
Joe Fox is the Arkansas state forester.
Editorial on 01/12/2017