Making Southern forests great again

In the late 19th century, virgin Southern pine forests in the West Gulf Coast Region remained virtually untouched. Louisiana had some of the best pine timberland in the South and much of it was controlled by the federal government. A large portion was in virgin longleaf pine.

After the Civil War, this land was made available by the government for homesteading and sale. Pine timberland was offered for sale at $1.25 per acre. Because of this, the extent of public land available, and the large pine volumes that occurred per acre, nearly half of the large purchases of timberland occurred in Louisiana. Primarily it was northern lumbermen and land speculators who had the resources to purchase the land.

The onslaught on the forests began in the early 20th century.

In addition to the steam locomotives that could move tremendous quantities of logs from the forests, rail mounted skidding and loading equipment allowed the companies to load and move the timber to the mills as fast as it could be cut. Temporary railroad spurs could be quickly moved into new areas of the forests.

The period from 1900 to 1920 was one of big mills — two of the largest mills in the world were built in Louisiana. Sawmills and their accompanying towns sprang up across the state. It is estimated that as many as 1,300 such mills were developed in Louisiana alone in the early 20th century. Almost every town or community had one to several sawmills.

These mills became viewed as a double-edged sword. They provided employment of a large percentage of employees in the local areas, but within 20 years most of these mills had harvested their timber and closed their doors with many of the mill towns becoming ghost towns.

When the timber cut-out occurred, mill owners typically abandoned their towns and the mill-owned land reverted to the state due to unpaid taxes.

Large lumbering operations were common in Louisiana and the aggressive nature of their logging methods resulted in extensive areas of cutover timberland with limited possibility for natural regeneration. When the virgin forests were harvested, mostly stumpscapes remained — areas of cutover forests with no seed source available for natural regeneration.

R.D. Forbes, Louisiana’s first state forester, described the situation in 1923 as “the plain truth of the matter is that in county after county, in state after state of the South, the piney woods are not passing but have passed”

In Louisiana, where the most serious effects of aggressive harvesting occurred, people who brought the hope of reforestation began their work. The effort was led by a visionary who convinced others that reforestation was feasible.

The visionary was Henry E. Hardtner.