It could take a decade or more for Florida's timber industry to recover from Hurricane Michael's devastation, and the countless downed trees pose an immediate wildfire threat, Forida Forest Service Director Jim Karels told a Senate committee Tuesday.
Karels told the Senate Agriculture Committee that about 1.4 million acres had severe or catastrophic tree loss, meaning 75 to 95 percent of the pine trees were damaged or destroyed. He said a 20-mile (32-kilometer) swath from the Gulf of Mexico to the Georgia border was the worst hit area. More than 16,000 private landowners were affected overall, including moderate damage far beyond the storm's eye, he said.
Karels recommended the state provide $20 million to help landowners clear fallen trees and start replanting the forests. He also recommended spending nearly $9 million for equipment and programs to help reduce the fire threat.
"It would help landowners remove their debris," he said. "It's really geared towards getting that rural economy back on its feet (and) reducing the fire threat."
The timber industry suffered about $1.3 billion in damage during the storm.
Democratic Sen. Bill Montford said he represents many of those communities and timber is one of the largest employers after schools and prisons.
"You're at the point where what was an asset is now a liability," Montford said. "This is more than a timber issue here, this is a long-range financial stress we're looking at."
Karels said landowners in hard-hit areas will have to pay about $1,000 an acre to clear the debris from their land.
"That timber you're looking at there was probably (worth) $2,000 an acre, and possibly they will get zero dollars for it right now, and then they have the liability," he said.
Montford worried that some landowners won't be able to recover.
"I'm not sure if many of these people can afford $500 to $1,000 an acre to clear, prep and reseed," he said.
Karels said there could be a shortage of contractors available to clear the land, as well as a shortage of seedlings to replace the trees that were lost.