Just how much is that tree worth?

Published 3:19pm Friday, April 23, 2010

Ive heard a lot of talk lately about how much money a few unpopular landowners have made off the timber they cut. One would naturally think that a 50-year-old straight, healthy poplar tree would be worth a fair amount of money. Most of us are well aware of the high cost of lumber these days at any lumber outlet.

What we dont know is how many workers have been in the process that takes the tree standing in the wood lot to the store shelf. When we sold some timber in 1996, the going rate for poplar was $175 per thousand board feet. The price is similar now. And that price was possible only because we were willing to cut 11 acres of poplars to make it worth while for the loggers to take on the job with their large equipment. The poplar that Im looking at right now for this comparison is 26 inches in diameter at chest height and about 75 feet tall. If lucky, it will yield either 4 saw lengths 16 feet long, yielding 740 board feet of lumber. Even a math moron like me can figure out that selling that tree for lumber will not be particularly profitable. At best, the tree grower will get $129.50 if the loggers are careful and the tree yields 4 saw logs. For 50 years growth, thats a profit of about $2.50 a year. Unfortunately, that wont pay the property taxes nor the clean-up costs after the loggers are gone.

Over the past few weeks, Ive been doing some research on hemlocks as a possible marketable lumber product. The numbers that Ive found are based on what is selling locally among small loggers, sawyers, and building contractors who are buying the rough hemlock for home siding, trim, etc. For a person who wants to buy hemlock for construction,&bsp; sawn, air dried rough hemlock lumber sells for $.90 a board foot($900/thousand bd. ft.). Kiln dried lumber will bring $1.00 board foot and planed lumber will add another 10 cents per board foot.&bsp; For the tree grower, hemlock in 8 foot to 16 foot length logs is worth $.25 a board foot when brought to the saw mill. The difference between the log price and end selling price goes for sawing, drying, transportation, chipping the waste, etc.

The log price of $.25 includes the cost of taking the tree down and hauling it to the saw mill. If the logger makes a living wage of $20/hour or more, and charges for the gas to get the log to the mill, then the landowner gets next to nothing. In the case of dying hemlocks, the landowner has to pay the logger to come cut the tree and haul it off, which most likely will cost him more than the value of the wood.

Forestry in western NC has changed dramatically in my lifetime. In the past 20 years over 15,000 acres owned by large timber companies in Polk County were sold to private individuals. Some of those tracts are now subdivisions; some were divided into smaller tracts from 20 150 acres. Our forestland is now primarily owned by private citizens with very little knowledge of commercial timber harvesting practices or wise timber management. Their land is not eligible for a lower agricultural property tax rate because the owner does not have a commercial timbering plan for his forestland. According to NC General Statutes pertaining to present use assessment and taxation, forestland eligible for present use value assessment must be actively engaged in the commercial growing of trees under a sound management plan. A good portion of the 15,000+ acres sold by the large timber companies was sold because the steeper, harder to manage slopes covered with mixed hardwoods, hemlocks and pines are unprofitable.

Many woodlot owners in WNC have a crop 50 years or more in the making that has no market. With no market and no commercial management plan, forestland has to be taxed at its&bsp; highest and best use: for residential development. This is the plight of many forest owners; because his forestland is not profitable as forestland, property taxes get raised exponentially.

But forests are very important for more than&bsp; financial reasons. Without forests we have erosion (i.e. Chocolate Drop). Without forests we would have no wildlife or fish in the streams, or no clean air or water. Is it the forest owners responsibility to provide these intrinsic values to the rest of us in the county at his own expense?

Several years ago, Joey Cabaniss said that we need a property tax category for land that is steep, covered with trees, and of little or no residential, commercial, or agricultural value. We need a category for land that holds the world together. Think of the erosion on Chocolate Drop and youll get the picture. Without our forests on the escarpment and in our steep ravines, land that holds the world together, the world as we know it would fall apart.

As a community that values our rural heritage and quality of life, we need to support our small woodland owners. Help them become educated as to the value of their timber products, and promote local lumber marketing co-ops. Buy lumber from Polk County, selectively harvested responsibly by local loggers and sawn by local sawyers. People retain that which has value for them. In the same way that farms are of value, our forests are extremely valuable to us as a whole community. That value must also be felt by the forest owner for the forest to survive.

Lets bond together as an agricultural community to preserve farm AND forestland. Were all growers, whether the crops be tomatoes, pigs, or trees.

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