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Hurricane costs East Texas a year's worth of timber
Falling Timber

Hurricane Rita hit East Texas' timber after months of dry weather, with storage facilities and lumber mills at maximum capacity and the Texas timber industry running at full throttle.

In the long term, the hurricane won't have a huge impact, said James Hull, director of the Texas Forest Service (TFS). In the short term, however, he said the industry was nearly devastated.

The hurricane damaged trees on about 771,000 acres. The economic impact will be about $833 million, according to TFS' September 30, 2005 Hurricane Rita Timber Damage Assessment. That's about 6 percent of the state's total timber, or about a single year's harvest.

Most of the worst damage was in Orange County, eastern Hardin County and the southern portions of Jasper and Newton counties, according to TFS.

"You've got to see it on the ground to really see the extent of the damage," Hull said. "It looks like a war zone over there."

On the ground
The majority of the damaged timber was along clearings where the wind could get at it, said Clint Hays, a forest inventory analysis forester with TFS. Hays flew on the initial air survey of the damage and participated in ground surveys.

"Most of the damage was along clearings: pastures, lakes, rights of way, highways and where there was nothing to block the wind," Hays said. "Driving on the roads, it looks a lot worse than it is. But once you get out in the stand [of timber] it doesn't look as bad from a timber management standpoint. We thought it would be a lot worse."

The goal is to use 40 percent of the damaged wood, Hull said.

"If we do that, it will be a new record for a major operation," Hull said. "Usually about 22 or 23 percent is used after a hurricane. Realistically, we have about four to six months before the wood goes bad and gets fungus in it." Cold weather could help, said landowner Richard Cartwright.

"One of the things we face is that wood deteriorates pretty fast and gets a blue stain that makes it pretty much useless," he said.

Cartwright, who is part owner of about 5,000 acres in Jasper County, near Spurger, said nearly a quarter of the timber owned by L. Cartwright Production Co. Ltd. was damaged, downed or ruined.

"We were real fortunate to have a logger here [to cut trees] before the storm, and he's staying," he said. "Lots of people don't have loggers right now because the damage was to such a wide area and there was such a huge amount of timber involved."

Carrying chainsaws
The damage has forced the industry to use older, more dangerous logging methods, according to Hull.

"Most everything is logged mechanically now--nobody has to touch it," he said. "But we can't get that machinery in the woods now, so we are having to go back in with chainsaws and other older methods. It's dangerous. Trees are going every which way; they are broken, leaning, and loggers are working in perilous conditions to say the least."

The biggest priority is safety, said Paul Hale, coordinator of the Texas Logging Council.

"When you put a man on the ground with a chainsaw, you are putting him in extreme danger," Hale said.

Many landowners don't realize the extent of the damage, he said.

"They had an investment worth $5,000 an acre and now its turned into 10 times less than that, or complete destruction," he said. "Not only is it not worth anything, you've got the cost to clean it up."

Daunting task
An industry task force met in Lufkin in 2005 to determine what could be done to speed the recovery. Industry officials are worried about fuel availability, water quality, workers' compensation insurance rates, pine beetle outbreaks and wildfires.

The damage should not affect property tax valuations because a five-year average is used, said Buddy Breivogel, the Comptroller's Property Tax Division manager.

"The total destruction of timber value is unprecedented," Hale said. "But the response of the state of Texas, the agencies, the landowners and loggers, the citizens and everyone, I am proud of them."

Greg Mt.Joy