These longleaf pines, now nine years old, on Patricia Middleton’s property weathered Michael better than others because of their stand density. They are prescribed burned annually, most recently in January 2021.
It’s safe to say that most every forest landowner in southwest Georgia has a memory about Hurricane Michael coming to call.
After pummeling the panhandle of Florida in October of 2018, the storm set a path through Seminole, Dodge, Early, Decatur and surrounding counties before tracking northeast out of the state. With winds of more than 100 miles per hour, those who experienced the storm share similar tales of fear and destruction.
“The storm’s footprint was huge,” said Georgia Forestry Commission Forest Management Chief Scott Griffin, who was assessing damage as soon as it was safe to do so. “From the air, we saw a string of mangled stands and huge areas of trees blown over and destroyed. On the ground, trees that had fallen were blocking roads and limiting access.”
As GFC chainsaw crews answered the call to clear emergency corridors, forest landowners called GFC for advice to make sense of staggering losses. In all, some 2.4 million acres of timberland were damaged, amounting to a $763 million loss.
“Within a month,” Griffin said, “$20 million was allocated to landowners by the Georgia legislature through the Forest Debris Management Program” (FDMP). Those dollars would prove to be a lifeline for many.
The FDMP had three objectives: ensure open access to forestlands, prevent catastrophic wildfires and aid forest restoration. Some 723 landowners took advantage of the assistance. With the help of GFC foresters, restorative activities were assessed, long-term plans were considered and contractors were engaged. Next, FDMP applications were filed and verification of work was conducted — processes the landowners with whom we spoke said were surprisingly easy.
Work has now concluded on FDMP projects, and as the 2020-2021 planting season drew to a close, we revisited properties and people who made it through the storms. Their stories are different, yet they share a single sentiment: gratitude.
Alan Emmons Alan Emmons had a lot of experience to lean on as he began acquiring Georgia forestland in 2000. His North Carolina State forestry degree led him to jobs in Virginia and North Carolina with Georgia-Pacific, eventually bringing him to Decatur County, Georgia, where he was seeking to “achieve the dream.” He is a consulting forester with Southern Forestry Consultants, which has locations in six southwestern states. He is a busy consultant, with hundreds of clients, who lives on his own 140-acre spread that was hit hard by Michael.
“Pines snapped, oaks fell, and every landowner was mad at everybody. My phone was ringing off the hook!” Emmons said the anxiety he and everyone else in the forest and agriculture industries experienced was “unbelievable,” as virtually overnight, loggers (and consultants) became the most sought-after rock stars and pulpwood prices plummeted from around $16 a ton to just $3.
“Even if you could get your trees harvested, the mills couldn’t handle the volume,” he said.
Emmons credited GFC for moving quickly to clear roads and debris, then following through with landowners and legislators to fast-track relief with the FDMP. “I’m pretty proud of what everybody did,” he said, “from the timber buyers to the loggers, consultants, state legislature and GFC. It was a cooperative effort and each was a cog in the wheel with a different job to do. All the cogs worked well in Georgia.”
Patricia Middleton When daybreak came and Patricia Middleton stepped outside, she, like her forest landowner neighbors, could hardly believe her eyes. Her driveway and roads were blocked by downed hardwood and pine trees, destruction was everywhere and her dam was buried under tons of heavy, fallen debris.
“My first call was to Steve Martin, the GFC forester for Early County, who had helped me with my conservation and stewardship plans,” Middleton said. “He came and assessed the damage, and told me ‘next steps.’ Everything was expedited and I got the money I needed to do what needed to be done.” Middleton’s management objectives include wildlife habitat and aesthetics as top priorities. She speaks proudly of the tortoises, deer, turkey, quail and scores of bird species that call her land home. In addition, the environmental services that forestland provides were critical concerns in restoration decisions. Middleton conducted her own prescribed burning, had sites prepped and recently planted some 30 acres of longleaf pine seedlings.
“It’s not just to make the land pretty or sell timber,” she said. “It’s carbon capture! I plant trees to help capture carbon and support wildlife. When I look out there now and see those seedlings, it fills me with gratitude. The trees are back! The legacy continues."
Glenn Earnest History and hope played the biggest parts in Glenn Earnest’s post-Michael decisions for his forested acres in Seminole County. With 45 years in the commercial forest industry behind him, Earnest knows a thing or two about land management. He’d recently thinned his 18-year-old longleaf pine and was looking ahead to a good harvest. But Michael had other plans, and losing a 200+ year-old red oak was the sign he said prompted him to restore his forestland.
“It was part of the native ecosystem,” he said. “It was habitat to owls, hawks and a lot of species. Bringing it back to its native condition was the responsible thing to do.”
The cost of such a plan, however, was a burden. Getting financial help through FDMP for site clean-up made a big difference.
When Earnest walks beside rows of freshly planted longleaf now with his loyal dog, Lori Darlin’, by his side, it’s clear he’s comfortable with new beginnings.
“I have a real appreciation for what’s really important,” Earnest said. “We make decisions based on hope.”
Mike Jones Commercial operations held distinct advantages in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. They included a f leet of needed equipment, ready logging crews and people with lifetimes of experience. But know-how and comparatively deeper pockets don’t go far when the company loss is close to 100 percent.
“It was shocking,” said Mike Jones, manager and co-owner of Balfour Land Company, a firm with 8,000 acres of timber holdings across Georgia that suffered $4 million in damages. “We immediately went into business mode, thinking about how we get started, cleanup, how to salvage. We were left with tops and small material, and took a catastrophic financial loss.”
Jones said cleanup crews worked 45 hours a week for more than a month, at a cost of some $100,000. The FDMP program helped them with about 20 percent of that amount.
“There was a lot of doubt that it would happen, that anybody cared,” Jones said. “But the FDMP program was great and it did help us get restoration funds fast.”
Steve Martin It’s not in Steve Martin’s nature to blow his own horn, but there are many Georgia landowners who readily do that for the GFC Region 4 Field Forester. His agency also holds him in very high regard and recently named him 2020 Forester of the Year. The prestigious award is given annually to a GFC Forest Management professional whose outstanding performance advances GFC’s mission to provide leadership, service and education in the protection and conservation of Georgia’s forest resources. Martin’s services throughout his management counties of Early, Miller, Seminole and Decatur in the wake of Hurricane Michael were only part of the many reasons he received the recognition.
“The landowners did the work,” said Martin. “We just provided the opportunity for them to do it at minimum cost.”
Martin credits Georgia legislators and the GFC with designing an assistance program in under three weeks that was “well thought out and excellently executed.” During the entire process, Martin said he was inspired by landowners who “went above and beyond.”
“Most landowners care deeply about their property. They mitigated wildfire and forest health issues and then went further into aesthetics. Forestland means more to them than an investment.”
And clearly Steve Martin means a great deal to each of these landowners. As Martin prepares for retirement this summer, they’re bound to send him off with wishes as warm as the South Georgia sunshine. ■
Stasia Kelly is the media relations specialist with the Georgia Forestry Commission. Stasia is focused on telling the story of forestry and the immense impact of the industry on Georgia’s environment, economy and heritage.
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