Walt McPhail measures the diameter of a mature pine on his timberland in Belton.

Walt McPhail measures the diameter of a mature pine on his timberland in Belton.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

BELTON — The forestry sector in South Carolina has an annual economic impact of $18.6 billion, employs more than 90,000 people, is the largest harvested crop at $759 million and is the No. 1 export commodity from the Port of Charleston at $1.5 billion.

And yet, there remains plenty of room for growth.

“Forestry is important to South Carolina because almost 70 percent of the forest land is owned by private individuals,” said Walt McPhail, chairman of the South Carolina Forestry Commission and president of the Greenville Forestry and Wildlife Society. “And timber is a valuable and renewable resource for the state. One of the problems we’re facing right now is that not enough of our forest land is properly managed. If we could improve our forest management even 10 percent, it would result in a tremendous increase in revenues.”

If landowners actively manage their forests, the forests will be healthier and more vigorous and will return the favor by producing high-quality products and amenities. From the time a pine seedling is planted, it takes 35-40 years before it reaches full maturity. Thinning the understory, harvesting trees at the proper time and replanting new trees are all critical to maintaining a robust woodland.

“Private landowners are the key to retaining and growing the state’s forest industry,” S.C. State Forester Gene Kodama said. “More active forest management can increase landowners’ investment returns, provide cash flow for more active management, keep forest as forests, protect the environment and support more forestry and related jobs. The state and the industry need to do more to educate landowners on the advantages of forestry and how to conduct good forest management.”

South Carolina’s trees are split about 50-50 between pine and hardwood types. But in the southeastern United States, pines are the most valuable to grow and harvest. To further emphasize the importance of forest management, pine plantations — defined as stands of pine that are crisply managed, harvested and replanted — represent 25 percent of the state’s timberland but produce 50 percent of the timber cut each year.

S.C. State Forester Gene Kodama says that private landowners are the key to growing the state's forest industry.

S.C. State Forester Gene Kodama says that private landowners are the key to growing the state’s forest industry.
Image Credit: Photo courtesy of the South Carolina Forestry Commission

“How much money pine farmers make depends on their management schemes,” said McPhail, who co-owns a thousand acres of well-managed pine timberland in Belton. “If you’re going to be harvesting timber, you don’t want to leave everything up to Mother Nature. Managing a forest is like tending a garden. You choose good soil. You plant good seeds. You thin them. You fertilize. And after all that, you can expect to produce an abundant crop.”

Clemson Extension agent Carolyn Dawson spends much of her time educating and assisting forest landowners. Playing the role of tree detective, Dawson examines forest health, identifies tree species and helps landowners draw up a sort of long-term road map to success.

“As the educator for Clemson, the first thing I do is determine the landowners’ objectives,” said Dawson, who is the area forestry Extension agent in the Upstate. “They might want a rotation of pines with the final product being poles. Others might want to just grow pulp wood. Some will want to maintain their land to best attract deer and turkey for hunting. And then there are people who only want to hold on to their slice of paradise. Everybody has different objectives in forestry. It’s my job to help them achieve these objectives in the most effective fashion.”

As a continuing effect from the 2008 economic downturn, housing starts — a crucial component to increasing demand for timber — have yet to substantially rebound.

Clemson Extension agent Carolyn Dawson is a "tree detective," helping landowners develop management plans.

Clemson Extension agent Carolyn Dawson is a “tree detective,” helping landowners develop management plans.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

“Prices of timber are directly related to the housing market,” Dawson said. “Low timber prices are prompting landowners to delay harvesting their saw timber, which is creating an overabundance across the state. So even if the housing market were to suddenly take off, landowners might not get the skyrocketing prices they’ve been banking on for a while.”

“Global demand for wood and wood products continues to grow along with the world’s population,” Kodama added. “The South produces more wood than any single country and is the ‘wood basket’ of the world, with South Carolina playing a key role. The Forestry Commission has led the state’s forest industry on a quest to increase its economic impact to $20 billion by the end of 2015. The industry has recovered from the ‘Great Recession’ and grown to $18.6 billion based on 2013 data, so the $20 billion goal is in sight. This will be confirmed late in 2016 when 2015 data is made available.”

Erratic weather has also recently impacted forestry. The February 2014 ice storm damaged young forests across about half of the state. And October 2015’s epic rain and flooding degraded young plantations, disrupted logging and mill production, ruined many private forest roads and destroyed thousands of seedlings in the middle and lower portions of the state. Some mature trees are likely to suffer long-term as well.

In the southeastern United States, pines are the most valuable tree to grow and harvest.

In the southeastern United States, pines are the most valuable tree to grow and harvest.
Image Credit: Jim Melvin / Clemson University

“The effects of October’s torrential rains vary tremendously from region to region in South Carolina,” said McPhail, who has won numerous landowner awards, including the 2012 National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year. “In the areas that weren’t severely impacted by the storms, the rain was actually beneficial, replenishing the aquifer to compensate for the droughts we’ve had over the past four or five years. But if you were unfortunate enough to live in the areas that were severely impacted, you might have significant damage. Landowners will have to take a wait-and-see attitude. Unless they start to see dying or diseased trees, they should not go in there and just clear-cut. It takes years for trees to reach maturity, so you don’t want to panic and harvest them before they reach their highest value.”

Loggers in the flooded areas have been hit hard by the wet weather that has persisted since October.

“The logger is most likely more affected by heavy rainfall than the landowner,” McPhail said. “I was recently talking to one who said he’s been out of work for two weeks because the ground has been too wet to log. And he’s based in the Piedmont where we have higher ground. I’m sure that loggers farther south are having a much tougher time.”

The multifaceted McPhail is a veterinarian who owns McPhail Animal Hospital in Mauldin. But despite his many interests, he has long been one of S.C’s most vocal forestry advocates.

“A Chinese proverb says: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now,’ ” McPhail said. “To me, truer words have never been spoken.”