- Associated Press - Sunday, March 23, 2014

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Trees have grown in what is Mississippi for countless eons, but changes in how they’re grown, how they’re processed and what they’re used for have changed the landscape in the state over the past half-century or so.

In 2006, just before timber prices dropped with the decline in housing starts, forest products had reached a high point, contributing $17.4 billion and 123,659 direct and indirect jobs to the state’s economy, according to Mississippi State University research.

“The size of the industry in terms of dollar value sales and jobs is definitely larger than decades ago,” said James Henderson, MSU associate extension professor and one of the authors of the 2008 study.

One of the first big advances was the advent of the Counce, Tenn., paper mill, followed by another massive mill in Courtland, Ala. Pulpwood to supply the paper mills gave growers a new market for small trees, especially pines.

Landowners benefited doubly from cash payments for the pulpwood harvest itself and from the faster growth from trees that remained after thinning harvests, eventually boosting yields of trees for higher-priced products such as lumber, plywood or poles.

The pulp market, however, is a big question mark in today’s wood products industry.

“In the U.S., we have a declining pulp/paper sector partly because of cost of labor and also because of regulatory compliance,” Henderson said. “That’s a substantial cost. A lot of major paper companies U.S.-based companies close mills in the U.S. and open them in Asia, where they don’t have those compliance costs.”

The International Paper plant in Courtland, Ala., is a casualty of that pressure. Formerly a major market for the region’s pulpwood, it began cutting production last year and is now closed.

The U.S. housing market over several decades drove domestic demand for lumber and other tree products, making timber a more attractive crop for marginal farmland and justified more intensive management.

“Our forest products industry in the South is tied to the U.S. residential construction market,” Henderson said.

While the Pacific Northwest ships much of its timber and wood products to Asia, he said, “We in the South have always been very dependent on domestic consumption.”

The South has a singular advantage in responding to domestic demand, however: The U.S. government owns much of the timber in the Pacific Northwest, while corporations, institutions, families and individuals own most of that in the South. As a result, it is subject to fewer regulations that add to either the cost or the timeline in harvesting.

Governmental policy has played a large role in shaping the timber industry and with it Mississippi’s landscape.

“When I first became aware of the timber industry, my father was one of the first people in Lafayette County to plant pine trees,” said land and timber owner Kaye Bryant of Oxford. “When the YLT (Yazoo-Little Tallahatchie flood control area) planting program came in, he was one of the first to join it. It aimed to correct the failed experiment of planting kudzu to control erosion. The YLT program said we should plant pine trees, which have a deep taproot, to stabilize soil. That was the early 1950s.”

Post-war housing demand and the expansion of utilities fueled much of the government’s promotion of tree farming.

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