WATCH: 3 Million Acres of Florida Timber Rotting Away 8 Months After Hurricane Michael
Only 13% of the 72 million tons of rotting timber has been cleared since the Category 5 storm wrought havoc on the Panhandle.
Hurricane Michael snapped fifth-generation timber farmer Will Leonard's timber like matchsticks.
"To see what my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and my brother and I have worked towards destroyed in the matter of three-and-a-half hours was a shock that gave way to grief," he recalled to Fox News.
Leonard's land is just a small fraction of the nearly three million acres of timberland across Florida's Panhandle flattened by Michael's Category 5-force winds. According to the Florida Forest Service, Michael left roughly 72 million tons of rotting timber on the ground. Clearing it will take an estimated five to seven years. So far, only 13% has been cleared.
"I went to Iraq…and it's the closest thing to a war zone that I've seen…I've been practicing forestry for 38 years and virtually anything I did in 38 years is gone or very drastically modified," timber farmer Philip McMillan, who manages 46 acres of land in Blountstown, told Fox.
On June 6, President Trump signed a federal aid package allotting nearly $500 million to help timber farmers in "the wood basket of the southeast." The package covers 75% of the damage, recovery, and reforestation costs, with the remaining 25% left up to farmers. But even that is proving too heavy a burden in one of the state's poorest regions. And because timber is not considered a traditional crop, there is no crop insurance.
"It is very much needed and appreciated, but there are many in the area that simply will not have the 25% match that's required to move forward with these federal programs… So many are left with very tough decisions moving forward," Alan Shelby, executive vice president of The Florida Forestry Association, told Fox. "Not only had they not gotten paid for last year's crop, now they don't have any seed money to reforest or to clean it up. To add insult to injury, the clean-up of that land is in excess of $2,000 per acre in some areas. In many cases, $2,000 an acre is more than the land is worth itself."
It's too little too late for many timber farmers, who say that time is running out. The downed trees lose value with each passing day, and eventually, they will become unusable altogether.
Fox reports that rot and insects have overtaken the broken trees, and farmers have roughly two months of viability left before they're too far gone to sell. "With the amount of bugs that are coming to feast on all of the dead decaying material here, there is a really good chance that you'll lose the green trees that are still standing as well…it's a vicious cycle," Leonard said.
And rot isn't the only thing farmers have to worry about. Wildfires are also threatening their slow-going clean-up process. "The Florida Forest Service has estimated our fire fuel load in danger to be five times that of California…because of the amount of dead woody material that's on the ground," Leonard told Fox.
Even with the federal aid, experts estimate that it will take more than a decade for Florida's $25 billion timber industry to recover from Michael. And although their fate is unclear, the farmers say they're hopeful that they'll recover too.