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Forest History
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Arkansas Forest History

(published in 1993)

Dr. John Gray (1920-2007)
Former Dean of the University of Florida School of Forest Resources

Forests have been a dominant element in the Arkansas environment throughout our state's history.

Time of Settlement to 1880

When continuing settlement began following the War of 1812, 96 percent of the state was in forest. It was a diverse one. In the Delta, the virgin forest consisted of magnificent stands of bottomland oaks, gums, ash, other hardwoods and cypress. In the Coastal Plain, short leaf pine (our state tree) and loblolly pine, and mixtures of pine and hardwood predominated. In the Ouachitas, short leaf pine and pine-hardwood mixtures were found on the drier sites, hardwoods on the moister, cooler locations. In the Ozarks, oaks, hickories, gums and other upland hardwoods occupied the forest for the most part. Along with land clearing for farming and settlement there was limited timber harvesting for local building, for firewood, fence posts and other products for home use and, in south Arkansas, for logs to raft down the rivers to sell to Louisiana sawmills. But all this barely made a dent in the largely virgin forests of the early to late mid 19th Century.

Pre-Forestry Exploitation Era

The situation changed in the 1880s when the state's rail network was expanded from 800 to 2200 miles of track. This not only provided access to a much greater proportion of forest, but also connected to rail lines to major lumber markets in Midwestern and eastern cities.

Large lumber companies from the Lake States and Midwest backed by northern capital, moved here, bought up large tracts, built mills and began large scale harvesting mostly on a liquidation basis. From 1879 to 1909, the peak production year of what we might term the "Pre-Forestry Exploitation Era," Arkansas lumber production increased twelve-fold. It was dominated by about two dozen big lumber companies - Crossett, Fordyce, Bradley, Dierks, Union and others. In 1909 the lumber industry employed 73 percent of all factory wage earners in Arkansas, By the end of the 1920s this initial timber harvesting boom was over. Many of the big mills had closed up completely, or closed up here and moved west. Small, portable type mills moved in able to operate on the scattered, smaller trees left behind. The state's first pulp and paper mill, International Paper Company in Camden which opened in 1928 and still operates today, was also able to use the smaller timber remaining.

The first field survey of Arkansas forest conditions, an informal one in 1929, found the situation grim. Of the 22 million total acres of land remaining in forest at that time (65 percent of the total land area), 20 million had been cut over. Though 85 percent of the harvested area was naturally reseeding or resprouting, 70 percent of this had been severely damaged by wildfires. In that survey year 11,000 such fires burned 2 1/2million acres - more than 11 percent of the total forest in just one year. Deliberate yearly woods burning for a variety of reasons was a strong tradition for many rural Arkansans at that time and up through World War II. By 1930 then the Arkansas forest overall was in a pretty devastated condition due to heavy over cutting in relation to growth, wildfire and other negative influences.


Initial Recovery, 1930 to 1953

But over the 1930s and 1940s a substantial recovery occurred as a result of several factors. First, not all of the forest products companies that came here during the exploitation era "cut out and got out." A number of the more far-sighted ones - Union Sawmill Company at Huttig and Malvern Lumber Company early on and, in the 1920s, Crossett, Dierks, Ozan at Prescott, Ozark-Badger at Wilmar, International Paper at Camden, and others, began taking steps to assure a continuing supply of timber ("sustainable forestry") from their own lands. These included providing fire protection, selective logging, and reserving parent trees (seed trees") to reseed areas after a final harvest. A major beginning had been made in public forest ownership and conservation in 1907 and 1908 when an initial 1,100,000 acres of federal public domain land in the Ouachitas and Ozarks were dedicated as the Ouachita and Ozark National Forests. Almost immediately the newly created U.S. Forest Service began providing protection from fire, trespass and timber theft to these lands, In 1930, the Arkansas Forestry Commission was established. One of its major goals was to bring all non-federal forestland under state-provided forest fire protection. This was finally achieved in 1953. During the 1930s, the newly established Forestry Commission and the two National Forests benefited greatly from services provided by the Depression Era Civilian Conservation Corps Program. CCC enrollees from 13 camps established in Arkansas helped fight forest fires, built fire lookout towers and, on the National Forests, constructed roads, campgrounds, picnic areas and swimming lakes. And they planted trees on thousands of acres of worn out and eroded highland farmland added to these National Forests in the 1930's as a result of purchase and transfer by the U.S, Department of Agriculture's Resettlement Administration Program. An additional factor that reduced harvesting pressure on the recovering forest in the 1930s was a sharp drop in building and corresponding lumber demand. And over the 30s and 40s there was a shift away from the use of wood as a home heating and cooking fuel. Some effects of these factors showed up in the first statewide, systematic survey of Arkansas forest conditions. It was conducted by the Southern Forest Experiment Station of the U.S. Forest Service over 1947 to 1951 and published in 1953. Follow- up surveys have been conducted approximately at ten year intervals since then. The most recent one was carried out in 1995-96.

The 1953 report showed that, although 2 1/2 million acres of forestland had been lost since 1929 to other uses (mainly to farm expansion in the Delta), overall timber supply sustainability had been reached. Yearly pine growth was 13 percent greater than removals; the yearly hardwood growth surplus was a whopping 63%. And fire protection was proving effective. Only 90,000 acres were being lost yearly on the 60 percent of the forest under state protection in the late 1940s.

Demand Growth Over The Next 45 Years

The 45 years from around 1950 to the mid-1990s were marked by major increases in demand for all forest values. There was explosive growth in forest-related outdoor recreation especially, but not exclusively, on the 19 percent of the total forest in public ownership in 1995. From 1948 to 1998, there was an 86 percent increase in hunting licenses and a 132 percent increase in fishing licenses issued in Arkansas by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. In 1995- 96, the two National Forests were providing nearly 4 million recreation visitor days per year. This plus growth in travel and tourism made the appearance of forests and forest operations - natural beauty or the lack of it - an important factor and a public issue. Over a recent 20-year period, water use in Arkansas increased by 200 percent and was expected to increase by another 140 percent by the year 2030. This has focused attention on the watershed protection effectiveness of forests and the adequacy and application of voluntary "Best Management Practice Standards" to minimize non point source pollution of takes and streams from logging and other forest operations under provisions of the national Clean Water Act of 1972. Along with these there was a strong increase in demand for lumber and other wood products. From 1950 to 1987, Arkansas lumber production increased by 54%; from 1953 to 1997, pulpwood production for Arkansas' eight pulp and paper mills quadrupled. The 1995 Forest Survey Report showed that altogether, the yearly timber harvest had increased by 72 percent since the 1953 Report.

The Arkansas Forest Today

Given these major increases in demand for timber, water, outdoor recreation and other forest values since the immediate post World War II years, what's the state of the Arkansas forest today as revealed by the 1995 Forest Survey and other sources? Area - In spite of the loss of over three million acres since 1929 to other land uses 575,000 acres of this since 1953 - 56 percent of the state, 18.8 million acres, remains in forest - more than all other land uses combined. Biodiversity - As of 1988, only 27,000 acres of old growth forest remained. The loss of this plus continuing reduction in Delta bottomland hardwood forest through conversion to cropland has reduced forest biodiversity since 1953. But we're a long way from having turned the Arkansas forest into a "monocultural pine plantation" as some critics have claimed. As of 1995, hardwood type forest plus hardwood-pine mixed forest where hardwoods predominate made up 73 percent of the total forest area. An additional 17 percent was in naturally seeded pine; only 10 percent were in pure pine plantations. And, in 1995, out of the total inventory of 10.7 billion live forest trees of sapling size and larger (one inch in stem thickness and larger), 8.3 billion were hardwoods plus cedars and cypress. Only 2.4 billion were pine - a near 3 1/2 to 1 ratio of hardwoods to pines. Thus although the proportion of the pine type in the total forest increased over the past 45 years from 19 percent to 27%, the Arkansas forest overall continues to be predominately a hardwood forest. We've lost some wildlife since the early days. Buffalo, elk, the passenger pigeon are gone. But wild turkey, beaver, otter, eastern black bear and deer have recovered from near extinction early in this century. And deer, coyote, gray fox, muskrat, possum, raccoon and wild turkey are thriving.


As is true elsewhere in the east and south, private forest ownership predominates here. Less than one fifth of the Arkansas forest is in public ownership and the two national forests (about which you'll hear more from the next speaker) account for 70 percent of this. About one-fourth of the total is owned by forest industry companies. The remaining 58 percent are owned largely by private non-industry, forest landowners, "PNIFLOs" - farmers and other private individuals.

Forest Industry Economy

In the 1990s, forest products harvesting and manufacturing continued to be a major sector in the state's economy. Some 2,500 timber harvesting and wood products manufacturing firms:

  • Employed some 43,000 Arkansans
  • Accounted for one out of six manufacturing jobs
  • At 1.2 billion dollars had the largest annual payroll of any manufacturing sector
  • Contributed more than 4 billion dollars annually to the state's economy


And in terms of wood raw material, since World War II this industry has been a sustainable one. The 1953 Forest Survey Report was the first to document this for the state as a whole. And despite a 72 percent increase since then in the total timber harvest, as of 1995, yearly growth was 25 percent or more greater than yearly harvest for both pine and hardwood categories. Indeed some Arkansas forest industry complexes and communities, such as Crossett which is celebrating its centennial this year, have been operating in the same locations for 100 years or more and are now managing and harvesting third and fourth generation forests.

Contributing factors - Many factors contributed to the recovery of the Arkansas forest since the end of the pre-forestry exploitation era and its continuing sustainability through the post World War 11 years in spite of the much greater demands on it. Effective fire protection was a "must." And by the mid-1990s it was very effective indeed. Annual loss to wildfires had been reduced to only 32,000 acres - two-tenths of 1 percent of the total forest per year compared to 11 percent in 1929. A second factor has been large scale investment in tree planting which now totals 119,000 acres per year and other forest management measures to improve timber productivity, wildlife habitat and population balance, watershed protection and overall forest health. A third was the virtual elimination of waste in logging through the development of tree length logging and hauling equipment and of debarking and chipping systems to turn saw milling waste into chips for pulp and paper manufacture.

In the first half of this decade, 51 percent of the total wood produced for Arkansas' eight pulp, paper and paperboard mills was chipped sawmill waste. A fourth factor was extensive public and private investment in forestry and forest products research and in education, technical assistance and public cost sharing assistance to improve forest management and productivity by PNIFLOs, the state's largest forest landowning category.


In summary, the story of the Arkansas forest, particularly over the past 70 years, is a remarkable one of many people and organizations, public and private, working with and improving on nature over many years to turn an almost completely depleted major natural resource into one of great value to the state and its people.

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