Can You See the Trees for the Forest?

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A stack of baled pine straw in a loblolly stand

Pine straw is a forest product that can be financially beneficial for landowners.

Richmond County is one of 70 counties considered “rural” in North Carolina, with the other 30 counties deemed “urban”. There are 307,000 acres making up Richmond County, and according to statistics from NC State University’s College of Natural Resources, almost 218,000 are made up of privately owned timberland. There are also thousands of acres of public timberland. Those forest and woodlands bring a lot of value to Richmond County.

On a drive through Richmond County one can see the tall longleaf pines, productive stands of loblolly pine, and even, in the western part of the county, some hardwood forests. For the most part, these lands are owned by families and individuals, many of whom have owned the land for years and even decades; some for a hundred years or more. Forest lands provide numerous benefits: to the owner, it may be a place of recreation, such as hunting, camping, or hiking, and income from timber and other forest products. The community benefits when forests are managed to provide valuable habitat for deer, turkey and numerous other creatures who make up the complex natural web of life in the woods. Woodlands buffer rain events, allowing water to permeate into the groundwater aquifer and filter clean water into streams. Increasingly, people are recognizing the value of carbon sequestration, a service trees provide by soaking up some of the excess carbon in the atmosphere which contributes to climate change.

Of course, trees are valuable as timber to build homes and other structures, furniture, provide light poles, produce pulp to create paper of all kinds, and wood chips that heat homes in Europe, just to name a few uses of trees. Longleaf pine trees drop pine needles used in landscaping across the state. However, the benefits and value of trees and woodlands require management to achieve their full potential. Nature, without strategic intervention, often results in a woodland overrun by invasive plants and animals; without thinning, pine trees lose value as a result of overcrowding; without prescribed fire, important native species can be lost forever. While forests and woodlands can bring a great deal of benefit to the landowner in numerous ways, without effort and intentionality on the part of the landowner, value may be lost. There are costs associated with woodland management and improvement: the price of trees for transplanting, land preparation, and costs associated with prescribed fire such as the establishment of fire lines. Some of these expenses may qualify for cost share through various government programs through USDA Farm Services Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). These programs require the property to be signed up with USDA through FSA. Other resources include the NC Forest Service (NCFS), which provides extensive resources to forest landowners in numerous ways. The regionally based Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association (SPBA), offers help and support for landowners to determine the best programs to help them meet their goals, whether for timber, wildlife habitat management, recreation, or pine straw raking. Working with the SPBA does not require the intention to utilize prescribed fire on the land.

Forests and trees may be worth even more than their intrinsic value. For those landowners who intentionally manage their forestlands, there are additional benefits to be found. Woodlands that are 20 acres or greater with a forest management plan may be eligible for the county Present Use Value program, which can significantly reduce property taxes for the landowner under certain conditions.

The most recent report from NC States’s Extension Forestry, for 2020, reveals that landowners in the county received an estimated stumpage harvest value of $15.5 million. That is the money landowners received directly when they sold their timber. While the 2018 report saw a slight dip in stumpage prices, stumpage prices have steadily climbed since 2012. The county as a whole also benefits from the forest sector, which includes forestry, logging, and forest product industries, which in 2020 was approximately $736 million in industry output to the county’s economy. This is a substantial increase over the value from 2018, the date of the previous survey, and between 2018 and 2020 the Enviva wood pellet plant began operations in the county. Statewide, forestry is a 32 billion dollar industry!

The forest landowner has just a few opportunities to make money from timberland in their lifetime. Once trees are cut, it is decades before the chance comes around again. As a forest landowner, be sure you have the best help and support to make the most of your woodlands. If you have forest or woodlands and are interested in finding out how to make the most of your asset, whether for recreation, timber or other uses, Cooperative Extension can help you make connections with the resources that are out there. Visit our office at 123 Caroline Street, Rockingham, visit our website, and follow us on Facebook to learn more about the programs we offer.