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.

Strong incentives to sell

Two factors — sagging timber markets, coupled with the rapid advancement of urban and suburban sprawl into what was once untrammeled forestland — have provided many landowners, especially younger ones, with strong incentives to sell their holdings to developers.  

The end result: forestland that is increasingly being reduced to smaller parcels — a factor that is not only undermining the U.S. forestry industry's ability to compete globally, but is also seriously undermining biodiversity.

Forests are a dense ecosystem that not only comprise trees but also many other types of species, many of which require minimal amounts of space to thrive.

"As this land is cut into smaller pieces, habitat is being altered too," McNabb contends.  

"Species need sufficient corridors of land to thrive and to grow. There are long-term implications to many of these species — and to biodiversity in general — as these tracts are reduced."

The stakes couldn't be higher: In addition to a myriad of economic challenges, Alabama forestland is also threatened by another especially insidious and underestimated enemy: invasive species, such as privet and cogongrass.

"With species such as these, we're talking about far-reaching economic and environmental implications that we do not yet fully understand," Barlow says.

Cogongrass, a highly incendiary weed, is not only contributing to a higher incidence of forestland fires, but, along with privet and other invasive species, is also pushing out many of the native species as well as creating hostile environments for planting new tree seedlings.

At the top of Extension's agenda is training aimed at equipping forestland owners, old and young alike, with the tools they will need not only to enhance forestland profitability but also to deal with these challenges, all of which pose immense threats to the long-term survivability of the forestry industry.

"That is one of our concerns especially with younger landowners — what they don't know," Barlow says, adding that a top training priority is acquainting forestry with global information system (GIS) technology that offers cost-effective ways to map and assess their land assets and also to manage them profitably.

Another major objective will be helping landowner to create additional sources of revenue from their land — a paramount concern in these lean economic times — and, in the process, to enable them to remain competitive.

Agroforestry practices, which involve raising crops or livestock under the tree canopy, remain one attractive option for many.

"Pine straw harvesting is a good example," Barlow says. "They don't have to do much in terms of land preparation, though these practices could make a lot of money, provided they know how to plan and manage these efforts carefully."

Silvopasture, which combines commercial forestry with livestock grazing in ways that benefit both, is an option for some landowners.

"All of this relates to our ability to remain competitive on a global scale," Barlow says.

"In this depressed market, landowners are searching for multiple paths to profitability.

"These approaches offer landowners an opportunity to use their assets more efficiently and profitably."