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Timber industry runs efficient operations
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The efficiency and sustainability of Mississippi's timber industry has helped grow it to the $1.2 billion value it has today.
The state has about 18.5 million acres of timberland. Of these, 70 percent are held by private, non-industrial owners. Mississippi's forest types are about 30 percent pine, 25 percent oak/pine mix and 45 percent hardwood.
Bob Daniels, forestry specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said forests are quite resilient and the state is using more of its pine than its hardwoods.
"The forest industry has been a strong proponent of conservation for years," Daniels said. "If you are dependent on a renewable resource, you can't wipe it out and still stay in business."
Some circles frown upon the timber industry, partly from past practices and partly from the disturbed appearance of harvested areas. Daniels said the industry in the 1950s was less efficient, often cutting down a whole tree for just the lowest 16 feet of trunk. At the sawmill, the log would be squared and the large slabs cut off would be burned for disposal.
"That was wasteful, but there were no markets for the wasted wood," Daniels said. "Today, the timber industry uses about 75 percent of the entire harvested tree, and it follows best management practices to protect the land during harvest."
Modern loggers are highly mechanized. Daniels said operators can drive machines up to the tree being harvested, attach to it with grapple arms and fell it with a blade. The machine directs where the tree falls, protecting the operator from felling the tree by hand, one of the most dangerous jobs around.
Once on the ground, workers remove limbs with chain saws and load the felled tree onto a log truck for the sawmill. Branches, tree tops and stumps that remain are part of what gives harvested areas a cluttered look before the newly planted trees get established.
"Limbs are typically left in the woods to begin to rot, but this logging slash can be an obstacle to reforestation," Daniels said.
Previously, the industry would gather this material with bulldozers and other equipment and burn it on the land before replanting. Today, people sometimes use a roll chopper to crush and break limbs so they can be burned after they dry. Both methods eliminate much of the debris and undergrowth so new trees can be planted and thrive.
Daniels said a more popular method of reforestation today clears all the usable wood out of the area, then uses herbicides to control undergrowth that competes with newly planted seedlings.
Once cut, modern sawmills bring full-length trees to the mill, leaving just the branches and the top of the tree cut off at a diameter of about 6 inches. These whole trees are efficiently manufactured into lumber lengths and sizes that are most valuable according to daily lumber market conditions.
Bark is removed from trees, stored and sold, and the slabs cut off to square logs are chipped into very specific sizes and sold to paper or chip board mills. Other wood particles that remain are sold to particleboard mills, and the very smallest pieces are either sold or used for boiler fuel, or used on-site to fuel wood-fired kilns.
"Because of the improvements in forest operations, manufacturing technology and lumber yield, the production of Southern pine lumber in the South has gone from 10.5 billion board feet in 1985 to 16.1 billion board feet in 2000," Daniels said.
Old images of the lumberjack and broken-down equipment are history, he said.
"Today's forest industry efficiently grows trees, manufactures products and nurtures the forests," Daniels said. "That's what will keep growing trees economically important in Mississippi's future."