Two experts fear a host of factors are coming together to create a storm, possibly even a perfect storm, across Alabama's forest landscape — the reason why they are stepping up efforts to warn timberland owners about this potential calamity and to advise them about the steps they should take to avoid it.

Among the main factors: sagging demand for forest products — a hangover from the 2008 market crash.

"Our forest industry is not doing well," says Ken McNabb, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System forester and W. Kelly Mosley Environmental Professor in Auburn University's School of Forestry.

"The domestic housing market is suffering, harvest levels are down, and consequently, landowners who have depended on timber harvesting have been adversely affected too.  

"In addition, some forest landowners are less likely to invest in management activities like replanting, weed control, and thinning when profitability is low."

The industry is also threatened by a host of systemic issues.

For Becky Barlow, an Extension forester and Auburn University associate professor of forestry, that point was driven home with stark clarity this year when her 9-year-old daughter accompanied her to a forestland owners meeting.

"She turned to me at one point during the meeting and asked, 'Why are these people so old?'" Barlow recalls.

Her daughter's pointed observation underscored one of the major challenges facing the forestry industry: The advanced ages of many, if not most, active Alabama forestland owners — a factor that carries major implications for the forestry industry.

McNabb says these older landowners tend to hold entirely different views on ownership than the younger generations who are now stepping in to fill their places.

"The people who currently own the land grew up on the land. They're connected to it, and it's a part of their history," he observes.

As this older generation passes, he fears much of this land will pass to a younger generation of absentee owners — children and grandchildren who often live far away from these rural localities and who do not share the same perspectives on landownership.

Compounding the problem is what McNabb describes as fragmentation.