October 20, 2022

    East Texas forests growing strong

    The forests of East Texas are thriving, thanks to modern forestry practices and a strong forest-products economy.

    “Over the last 20 to 30 years, there’s been a lot of focus on growing higher-quality trees,” said Dr. Aaron Stottlemyer, Texas A&M Forest Service Forest Analytics Department Head. “Every year, we’re producing better and better trees that are growing faster.”

    That, in turn, translates to a robust forest with benefits for the Texas economy.

    “Forests are healthy, providing jobs and environmental benefits,” said Bill Oates, Texas A&M Forest Service Associate Director.

    In 2021, the state’s forest sector had a total economic impact of $41.6 billion while supporting over 170,000 jobs. The forest-based industry was one of the top 10 manufacturing sectors in the state, and timber ranked seventh among Texas’ agricultural commodities.

    The health of the forests and an abundance of harvest-ready trees suggest room for growth in terms of investments in forest products.

    “Texas is in a really good situation from a resource availability standpoint,” Stottlemyer said. “There are clearly opportunities for increased development and greater utilization of the resource.”

    Growing strong
    Each year, Texas A&M Forest Service foresters and technicians collect information on forest conditions and tree numbers, size and condition.

    “We’re constantly monitoring what’s happening,” Stottlemyer said. “That’s how we know how much timber is growing versus how much is harvested.”

    The data collected since 2016 show the growth of commercial timber in Texas outpacing the amount being removed. In fact, figures from forest inventory reports show that enough wood grows in East Texas to fill a logging truck every 19 seconds.

    Resilient forests
    A combination of factors has contributed to the recovery of Texas’ forests over the past several decades: genetic gains from tree improvement programs, the modernization of sawmills that has maximized the amount of lumber produced from logs, stronger markets for smaller-diameter logs, and the recent absence of natural disasters and pest infestations in the forest.

    “It’s all connected,” said Oates. “We’re doing a better job with fire protection, with insect and disease protection and with faster, better growth.”

    Assessments following Hurricane Rita in 2005 estimated damage to 770,000 acres of East Texas forests, accounting for about 6 percent of growing stock. Hurricane Ike in 2008 damaged about 450,000 acres of forestland.

    The recession in 2008 and drought in 2011 also took a toll on the timber industry.

    Since then, we haven’t had an event cause major damage in the forest, which Stottlemyer credits to how well the forests are managed.

    “A managed forest is more resilient,” Stottlemyer said. “It’s those overly dense stands that are very susceptible to high winds and insects because those trees are stressed.”

    Better trees
    The effort to improve tree genetics to meet specific needs such as fast growth, drought and disease resistance and regional adaptability has played a major role in contributing to a robust forest economy.

    “We’re able to get more wood — more volume per acre — and we’re able to get that volume sooner,” said Fred Raley, Texas A&M Forest Service Tree Improvement Coordinator and Director of the Western Gulf Tree Improvement Program. “We’ve enhanced forest productivity in terms of both time and quantity. We’re getting product to the market quicker, and we’re getting more tonnage per acre.”

    The ability to get higher yield on less land allows timber owners to focus on acreage that is more productive, making way for restoration-based activities elsewhere.

    “It’s important for me to know that we’re managing the forests for the best forests they can be,” Raley said. “There can be multiple objectives. They all have value.”

    Stewards of the land
    More than 90 percent of the state’s 12 million acres of productive timberland is privately owned. Those landowners rely on the forest industry to support their land management activities.

    “A strong forest economy equals a healthy forest,” Oates said.

    Texas A&M Forest Service experts work with landowners to assess the risks of wildfires, pest infestations and other threats.

    “There’s a lot of interest in the environment these days, and people are hungry for knowledge on how to manage their forests properly,” said Jake Donellan, Texas A&M Forest Service East Texas Operations Department Head. “We put landowners on the path to improve the health and sustainability of their forests, and that helps spur the conversation toward better management practices.”

    Forest products pave the way for the work that keeps the forest healthy.

    “In order to do a lot of that work, it costs money, and that’s one of the benefits of having a robust forest industry where we can turn the timber into forest products,” Donellan said. “Having access to mills is incredibly important to be able to offset some of those costs of implementation on their land.”

    The best stewards of the land continue to be the people who own it.

    “A lot of people think when we’re harvesting timber that it’s causing deforestation, and that’s not the case in East Texas because harvested trees are immediately replaced with seedlings,” said Donellan. “It’s a testament to the landowners who are willing to put in the work to manage their forests.”

    Challenges and opportunities
    The forest economy is not without challenges, including an ongoing labor shortage that has contributed to a downward trend in harvesting.

    Rob Hughes, Texas Forestry Association Executive Director, said the oversupply of timber could lead to a changing landscape in the forestry industry, with some landowners opting to move into livestock or hay production in an effort to make a return on their land investment.

    “Up to this point, the forest products market is tied at a high percentage to family housing,” Hughes said. “The market depends on the economy being strong, and that’s a good thing when it’s rolling. But when the economy slows, as it is now, the demand falls for building products and subsequently timber from our forests.”

    The upside, Hughes said, is the potential impact of mass timber in commercial building markets.

    “New, engineered wood products like cross-laminated timber panels are the future,” Hughes said. “And with the discussion about climate change and carbon sequestration, the benefits of mass timber give us a voice in the marketplace.”

    Texas A&M Forest Service Contacts:
    Dr. Aaron Stottlemyer, Forest Analytics Department Head, 979-458-6630,
    Communications Office: 979-458-6606,