Panama City News Herald,
March 31, 2019,
By Katie Landeck,
PANAMA CITY — There isn’t a lot of shade left in the forest.
Hundreds of thousands of trees snapped like matchsticks during Hurricane Michael, recreating the very fabric of the woodland environment. Streams and small rivers were disrupted by the hundreds of small dams the downed timber created on their banks. The roots that held the ground together have been upended, leaving the area vulnerable to erosion. The habitat has changed for woodland wildlife. New hazards, like fire and invasive species, loom ahead.
More than 3 million acres were severely damaged by the storm and about half of the damage was catastrophic, meaning 95 percent of the trees were lost, according to the Florida Forestry Service. With large tracts of managed land in the region, the storm is expected to cost the timber industry more than $1.3 billion.
“Hurricane Michael was devastating for our timber and forest,” said Jim Karels, state forester and director of the Florida Forest Service. “Hugo, Andrew, Ivan, Katrina, this is the worst forest devastation I’ve seen.”
How exactly this will impact the environment and industry of the woods is still unknown. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman said it will take “months or years” to full grasp what the impacts will be, but what is clear is that the forest, like so much else, has changed.
Christopher Columbus, the first European explorer of the New World, was also the first European explorer to record a hurricane, in 1495, which is to say there has likely never been a time where forests weren’t threatened by hurricanes.
For centuries, the woods have periodically been knocked over and steadily regrown. This is part of the natural circle of life.
But a lot has changed since Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the increased traffic around the globe he helped launch has introduced invasive species that threaten how forests rebuild after hurricanes.
Besides the fire threat, the two greatest threats Karels has named for the forest is invasive plants, such as Chinese tallow, and the invasive pine beetle that preys on stressed trees.
The near erasure of the forest has marked the beginning of a great competition on the forest floor. With the giants gone, there is suddenly an abundance of resources that weren’t available before to the young trees, including more water and sunlight.
After Hurricane Katrina, University of New Orleans Associate Biology Professor Jerome Howard feared a “tallowpocalypse.”
For years, he has monitored a spot filled with oaks, maples and palmettos in Louisiana’s Bayou Sauvage, watching to see how the woods would fend off invasive species. Then, Katrina swept through his experiment, knocking down trees and killing others via salt poisoning. More invasive Chinese tallow seemed to survive than native species.
The storm, by necessity changed the experiment. It became about what species would become the canopy.
“Nature has a way of upending our expectations,” he wrote, when asked via email what happened.
The immediate “tallowpocalyse” he was expecting hasn’t materialized. Instead, wood shrubs grew even faster, creating shade that stunted the growth of the new tallows.
“This is not a victory, just a reprieve,” he said. “Tallows are tough and are hanging on, and eventually they will take over. In areas where the shrubs have died back enough to allow sun to penetrate to the soil the tallows are growing rapidly and are starting to shade the shrubs. It still looks as though the site will become dominated by tallow, but it will take longer than I expected.”
The native species, he said, haven’t recovered “in any way,” he wrote, partially because they don’t have persistent seeds and need special condition to “germinate.”
“It may require hand planting to bring them back,” Howard wrote.
There’s a silver lining in this tale. Much of the forests in the Panhandle was hand planted even before the storm, as around 85 percent were managed private land, including hundreds of thousands of acres of timber tracts. Well managed too, Karels said, which means while the loss was great to begin with, these woods will likely get a head start regrowing that more wild lands do not get after a hurricane.
The Forestry department will be encouraging landowners to plant trees like slash pines and loblolly pines that are native and grow relatively quickly. Loblolly, for example, can grow up to two feet a year. On public lands, the slower growing longleaf pine, which is known for creating high-quality habitat, is the favored tree to plant.
“They’re all good selections,” Karels said.
What does all this mean for the wildlife that call the forest home?
That could take years to fully figure out, said Carli Segelson, a spokeswoman with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
“Understanding the impacts to wildlife and their habitats may take months or years, Segelson wrote in an email. “Impacts to individual wildlife species will vary, potentially increasing preferred habitats for some species and decreasing the same for others.”
So, for example, the standing dead trees called “snags” will likely benefit birds like the brown-head nuthatch, Carolina wren and screech owls that use the cavities, Segelson said. The branches can also make great perches for hunting for some bird species. But on the other end of the spectrum, for species like the red cockaded woodpecker, that rely on living trees, they might chose to leave the area due to the scarcity of new trees for cavities.
While the hurricane changed the habitat, it actually created a lot of habitat features, such as coverings and new food areas.
“Downed logs are used as important cover for snakes, shrews and mice,” Segelson wrote. “Some species may also benefit from an increase in forest edge and a decrease in the forest canopy, allowing more growth of understory plants. Deer, quail and gray squirrels may all benefit.”
Though, the downed trees might also inhibit the movement of deer and other larger animals. You win some, you lose some.
Then some animals don’t seem to notice the change. The bears, for instance, that FWC monitors via radio collars have so far shown no significant changes in behavior.
For now, researchers will have to wait and see what happens.
With everything from the pines to hardwoods damaged, now it’s about planting and moving obstacles out of the way.
“How fast forests recover from damage, or whether they recover at all, depends very much on what limits them. When damage occurs, early successional species (weeds) move in first, but if you are lucky they will be native weeds that native trees have evolved to outcompete, Howard said, noting that may times there are obstacles. “Having said all that I am optimistic for Florida forests in the long term since they have evolved to withstand hurricane damage and are tough and persistent.”
Studies beyond his support this view. In the 1990s, Harvard University took a winch to a patch of woods in Western Massachusetts to simulate a hurricane, pulling down hundreds of trees to see how it would recover. And while managed coast timber tracts and New England’s hardwood forests are not the same, like Howard the researchers there found the environment to be surprisingly resilient.
“Recovery is fairly rapid in terms of productivity (how much wood grows each year) but slower in terms of how much volume/biomass there is in the forest,” wrote Audrey Barker Plotkin, senior researcher and site manager for the Harvard Forest in an email.
She also said that hurricanes “dramatically change forest height ” but only “modestly change the kinds of trees that make up the forest.”
In the meantime, timber farmers and groups like the Northwest Florida Water Management District, an agency that had just celebrated planting its fifteen millionth longleaf pine, are preparing to start the replanting and the state, led by people like Karels and Fried, are working on aid packaged to help it along.
“It was a disappointing storm for us,” said Executive Director of the water management district Brett Cyphers. “It does set you back … but we’ll plant and restore.”
And though it will take decades for the canopy to recover, he’s optimistic it will be restored.