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Forests losing ground to urban sprawl

The South's 13 states will lose 12-million acres to development in the next 20 years, a study says.

By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 27, 2001


Millions of acres of Southern forests, including timberland in fast-growing Florida, will be lost to urban sprawl over the next 20 years, according to a federal study released Monday by the U.S. Forest Service.

Turning forests into subdivisions does more than just end the harvest of trees from those areas, the report said. It destroys habitat for wildlife, including rare species such as the Florida black bear and the red-cockaded woodpecker. Southern forests are the source for more than half the lumber, plywood, paper and chipboard sold in the United States.

Yet the South's 13 states will lose 12-million acres of forest to development over the next 20 years, the study said. Florida already leads the South in the amount of timberland lost to development, dropping from more than 20-million tree-covered acres in the 1950s to 15-million acres, the study found.

As land disappears, Florida foresters are learning how to grow more trees on less property, said Mary Frederick of the Florida Forestry Association. Florida timber owners who might want to hang onto their forests are driven to sell by "an accumulation of aggravations," said Elwood E. Geiger, 76, who expects to be the last of his family to harvest timber from his 610 acres near Jacksonville.

When Geiger was growing up, the nearest neighbors were miles away. But in the 1970s an interstate split his property, and now subdivisions have crowded in around his family home.

Geiger said he would like to conduct controlled burns on his forest, but he can't because it might send smoke onto the busy highway. He said he is frustrated by government rules designed to protect wetlands on his property that developers have wiped out around him.

Although Geiger is the third generation to work his land, he does not expect his daughter to take it over because she would have to pay inheritance taxes based on its development potential. To avoid that, he is resigned to selling to a developer. "We have 1,000 people a day coming into Florida, and they all have to go somewhere," he said. "Timberland and farmland are the places where growth has to go."

The Panhandle's ecologically rich pinelands are likely to be the next to fall to sprawl, the study said. "It's just ripe for development," said John Greis, co-leader of the study. "Ultimately the Panhandle is one of the last great frontiers of Florida, and with that type of ecological system, that puts them at a special risk."

The Panhandle's development boom is being led by onetime timber giant St. Joe, the state's largest private landowner.

"A lot of it is still in forest, but a lot of it has for-sale signs on it," Frederick said.

St. Joe was founded when millionaire Alfred I. du Pont came to Florida during the Depression and bought hundreds of thousands of acres dirt cheap. Now, after more than half a century in the timber business, the company wants to develop and sell much of its Panhandle holdings, turning quiet forests into pricey communities. The buyers don't live there. Most houses are destined for use as tourist rentals or vacation homes for people from Atlanta, New Orleans, Birmingham, Nashville and other Southern cities.

Representatives for St. Joe did not return a reporter's calls Monday.

Although not as well-known as tourism and construction, timber is big business in Florida too, employing 60,000 people and producing a payroll of about $1-billion, according to the industry. The timber industry favors using conservation easements and tax incentives to encourage property owners to maintain their forests. The 1,200-page study, formally known as the Southern Forest Resources Assessment, made no recommendation on how to stem the loss of land to development.

More than 25 scientists and analysts working for four federal agencies spent two years preparing the study, the most comprehensive look ever at American forest resources.

An environmental group, the Dogwood Alliance, criticized the study's findings as skewed by industry. Dogwood Alliance spokesman Trevor FitzGibbon contended the timber industry is itself to blame for lost forest land because it is cutting 5-million acres a year more than it plants. Greis of the Forest Service said he could not comment on that figure.

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