Congress, help rural Americans before hurricane season strikes

Congress, help rural Americans before hurricane season strikes
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This week as Congress returns from spring recess, the first order of business should be passing a disaster recovery package. This year’s hurricane season is just weeks away, yet, the forest and landowners affected by last year’s Hurricanes Michael and Florence have not yet even begun to recover. The same can be said for the landowners from our western states, who are still reeling from a horrendous 2018 wildfire season. 

If we are to continue to support our rural economies and the important ecological resources that come from our forests, then Congress needs to focus on what matters most: helping our fellow rural Americans after these devastations.

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Across the U.S., families own the largest portion of forests, not the federal government or corporations. What’s more, their hard work is felt far beyond their property lines. They support the clean water supply that flows to the faucets of millions of Americans. They provide critical habitat for our wildlife, including at-risk species. And their forests provide more than 50 percent of the nation’s wood supply and support more than 1.1 million rural jobs. 

Caring for forest land includes ongoing costs, equipment, contractors and labor. Yet, trees can take 20 to 80 years to grow, and often only provide income once a generation. And unlike farmers, insurance for forest owners is so cost-prohibitive, it’s not an option.

After disasters strike, such as hurricanes and wildfires, family forest owners not only need to rebuild their homes and lives, but their forests as well. Given their contributions to our nation’s natural resources, family forest owners need to be supported if we want to our forests to remain as forests. 

Take for example Jim and Alison Browne of Clarksville, Florida. Since purchasing their tree farm, the Brownes have put countless hours and their own personal savings into caring for their land. They improved a natural pond system, maintained standing timber, cleared trails and fire breaks for safety and worked to restore the native longleaf pine species needed for wildlife habitat. In addition, they became certified in the American Tree Farm System, recognizing their commitment to rigorous standards of sustainability.

Then Hurricane Michael surprised the Brownes and everyone else hit in Florida. When the storm made landfall, it had reached Category 4 winds. With 150 mile an hour winds, the eye went directly over Clarksville and the Brownes’ tree farm. It mowed over 200 acres of their mature pine trees and almost all of their 100-year-old oaks.

Their consulting forester estimated it was $225,000 worth of standing timber lost. Making it worse, the soil remained too wet for months afterward, preventing the wood from being removed while it was still of value. At an average of $2,000 to $4,000 an acre to remove the debris, the Brownes are unable to afford the cleanup. Now as the spring and summer approach, these large debris piles are exacerbating the threat of wildfire which could mean a second disaster.

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The Brownes are not alone. More than 17,000 family forest owners and 5 million acres of forestland were damaged or destroyed due to hurricanes last year.

While landowners like the Brownes want to restore their property to forested land, many may not be able to afford to do this, as the cost and risk are too high. Not restoring these forests will put our habitats and watersheds in serious jeopardy and will have a significant effect on the economies of our rural communities.

Both the House and Senate disaster packages have strong provisions for family forest owners thanks to forest champions on Capitol Hill. Now it’s time for Congress to act and pass a disaster recovery aid package to help those affected recover, which ultimately supports all Americans.

Tom Martin is the president and CEO of American Forest Foundation.