Southern U.S. timberland owners face increasing pressures

April 12, 2021

By: The Working Forest Staff

FOREST2MARKETS — Population growth in the US South has exploded over the last few decades. The region gained over 1 million new residents between 2018-2019 alone and has demonstrated an astonishing annual growth rate of roughly 38% since 2010. The South is now home to nearly 126 million inhabitants – more than double the population of the Northeast.

As the population in the region steadily grows, rural forest landowners who were once many miles from anyone are increasingly impacted by the perpetual sprawl that is bringing new housing developments, schools, and shopping centers to their backyards. The US-South continues to transition from a rural to a more urban/suburban region as small to medium-sized towns are expanding rapidly, mimicking larger cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Birmingham, Jacksonville, New Orleans, and Houston. Rural land is converted daily from forestland and small farms to retiree residences and businesses.

In fact, between 1982 and 2012, developed land increased by 19.3 million acres (79.9%) from 24.2 to 43.5 million acres in the South. This means that around 46% of the conversion to development that occurred in the entire US during this period occurred in the South, an area that comprises just 22% of US land area. Between 2000 and 2010, the Atlanta urban area alone increased by over 680 square miles, the most of any urban area in the United States during this period.

Over this same period, forest land in the region increased 1.0% from 173.8 to 175.6 million acres. Meanwhile, cropland decreased by 27.2 million acres (27%), pastureland by 1.3 million acres (2%), and rangeland by 3.5 million acres (3%). The South experienced more cropland conversion and less pasture and range conversion than the US as a whole; around 47% of the cropland conversion that occurred in the US occurred in the South.

Population growth in the US South has exploded over the last few decades. The region gained over 1 million new residents between 2018-2019 alone and has demonstrated an astonishing annual growth rate of roughly 38% since 2010. The South is now home to nearly 126 million inhabitants – more than double the population of the Northeast.

As the population in the region steadily grows, rural forest landowners who were once many miles from anyone are increasingly impacted by the perpetual sprawl that is bringing new housing developments, schools, and shopping centers to their backyards. The US-South continues to transition from a rural to a more urban/suburban region as small to medium-sized towns are expanding rapidly, mimicking larger cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Birmingham, Jacksonville, New Orleans, and Houston. Rural land is converted daily from forestland and small farms to retiree residences and businesses.

In fact, between 1982 and 2012, developed land increased by 19.3 million acres (79.9%) from 24.2 to 43.5 million acres in the South. This means that around 46% of the conversion to development that occurred in the entire US during this period occurred in the South, an area that comprises just 22% of US land area. Between 2000 and 2010, the Atlanta urban area alone increased by over 680 square miles, the most of any urban area in the United States during this period.

Over this same period, forest land in the region increased 1.0% from 173.8 to 175.6 million acres. Meanwhile, cropland decreased by 27.2 million acres (27%), pastureland by 1.3 million acres (2%), and rangeland by 3.5 million acres (3%). The South experienced more cropland conversion and less pasture and range conversion than the US as a whole; around 47% of the cropland conversion that occurred in the US occurred in the South.

Land-use change and urbanization in particular are potentially powerful influencers on forests, and this kind of growth will continue to add pressure to regional forest resources and make forest management increasingly difficult. Prescribed burning, arguably the best tool that a forest manager has is no longer even an option in many areas in the South due to safety and legal concerns. Additional anxieties for southern forest owners are zoning regulations that prohibit or severely limit timber harvesting, littering, and dumping, trespassing, illegal hunting, drains on water resources, hurricanes, and pollution (air, noise, and water).

And with stumpage prices seemingly stuck at historically low levels, many southern timberland owners (particularly non-industrial private forest NIPF owners) are asking the obvious question: Why continue growing timber at all?

This is a fair question, given the confluence of events that have unfolded across the South since the mid-1990s when planting pine trees was seen as a profitable long-term investment and the outlook was optimistic. However, no one could have foreseen the economic fallout from the tech bubble that burst in 2000 and the total economic collapse that then transpired in 2008, which resulted in a number of structural changes across the forest products industry.

We have covered these impacts extensively over the last several years and while current timber prices are governed by the relationship between supply and demand in the market, this fact does little to assuage the frustrations of southern landowners who have watched downward price pressure steadily chip away at profit margins for their timber assets.

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