In 1998, one-sixth of Arkansas’ manufacturing jobs – 43,000 – were in the forest products sector.

“There were 2,500 companies in the forest products industry, and they supported $1.2 billion in payrolls, the largest of any manufacturing sector,” George Balogh wrote in a history of the industry in Arkansas. . active throughout the state. Dierks Forests Inc., purchased by Weyerhaeuser Co. in 1969, had large timber operations in Mountain Pine and other communities in the Ouachita Mountains. Potlatch had a lumber operation in Warren.

“Anthony Timberlands had a large lumber and forest products operation in Bearden, and Green Bay Packaging had a kraft pulp mill and lumber operations around Morrilton.”

There were large paper mills in Camden, Pine Bluff, Crossett, Arkansas City and Ashdown.

Beginning in 2008, the Great Recession hit the timber industry hard as the housing market collapsed in much of the country. Many of the jobs lost at the time, especially in the southern half of Arkansas, never returned. This is the subject of the cover of today’s Perspective section.

Overall, however, the story of Arkansas is this: a once depleted natural resource has rebounded to play a major role in Arkansas’ economy.

The late John Gray, former Dean of the School of Forest Resources at the University of Florida, wrote in his history of the Arkansas lumber industry: “When settlement began after the War of 1812, 96 % of the state was forested. It was diverse. In the delta, the primeval forest consisted of magnificent stands of ground oak, gum, other hardwoods, and cypress. mixtures of pine and hardwoods.

“In the Ouachitas, mixtures of shortleaf pines and pines and hardwoods were found on drier sites with hardwoods in wetter, cooler locations. In the Ozarks, oaks, hickories, gums and other highland hardwoods occupied most of the forest.With land clearing for farms and settlements, timber harvesting for local construction, firewood, fence posts and other products for domestic use was limited.

In southern Arkansas, some logs were rafted down the Ouachita River and Bayou Bartholomew to be sold to sawmill owners in northern Louisiana.

“All of this has barely dented largely pristine forests,” Gray wrote. “The situation changed in the 1880s when the state railroad network was expanded from 800 to 2,200 miles of track. This not only provided access to a much greater proportion of forest, but also connected the to lumber markets in cities across the Midwest and East.

“Lumber companies from the Great Lakes and Midwestern states, backed by the Northern Capital, settled here, bought land, built mills, and began large-scale harvesting. From 1879 to 1909, lumber production of Arkansas increased twelvefold. It was dominated by about two dozen lumber companies. … In 1909 the lumber industry employed 73 percent of all factory workers in Arkansas.”

The era known as the Big Cut – which spanned years of railroad expansion from the 1880s through the 1920s – saw the rainforests decimated.

“By the late 1920s, the initial timber harvesting boom was over,” Gray wrote. “Many of the large mills had closed. Small portable mills moved in to operate on the scattered small trees left behind. The state’s first pulp and paper mill, which opened in Camden in 1928, also been able to utilize the smaller timber which The first field survey of Arkansas forest conditions, informal in 1929, found the situation grim.

Of the 22 million forested acres that remained, 20 million had been cut. Although 85 percent of the harvested area was experiencing some natural reproduction, 70 percent of this land had been severely damaged by the fires. During the year of the survey, nearly 11,000 fires consumed more than 2 million acres.

“Deliberate burning for various reasons was a strong tradition for rural Arkansans from this period until the end of World War II,” Gray wrote. “In 1930, the forests of Arkansas were devastated. During the 1930s and 1940s, a substantial recovery occurred due to several factors. First, all the forest products companies that came here at the time of exploitation did not practice cutting and taking out.”

Union Sawmill Co. in Huttig, Malvern Lumber Co., International Paper Co. in Camden, Ozan Lumber Co. in Prescott, Ozark-Badger Lumber Co. in Wilmar, Crossett Lumber Co. and Dierks Forests Inc. were among the companies that began practicing sustainable forestry in the 1930s and 1940s. They provided fire protection, saved seed trees that were used to reseed certain areas, and used selective logging methods.

In the Ouachita National Forest and the Ozark National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service also provided fire protection.

The Arkansas Forestry Commission was created during this period with the goal of providing forest protection to all non-federal forests, a goal that was achieved in 1953.

“During the 1930s, the new Arkansas Forestry Commission and the two national forests benefited greatly from the services provided by the Great Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps,” Gray wrote. “CCC registrants from 13 camps across Arkansas helped fight wildfires and build watchtowers. In national forests, they built roads, campgrounds, picnic areas picnics and swimming lakes.They planted trees on thousands of acres of eroded upland farms.

“An additional factor that reduced harvesting pressure on forest recovery in the 1930s was a sharp decline in demand for wood. There was also a shift away from the use of wood as fuel for domestic heating and Cooking.”

The U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Forest Experiment Station conducted a survey of forest conditions from 1947 to 1951. The report, released in 1953, showed that 2.5 million acres of forest land had been lost in the state since 1929. Most of the loss was due to the expansion of row crops in the delta. However, the annual growth of pines in the remaining forests was 13% higher than extraction. The hardwood growth excess was 63 percent. Land lost to fires had fallen to about 90,000 acres per year.

“The 45 years from 1950 to the mid-1990s were marked by increases in demand for all forest values,” Gray wrote. “There has been an explosive growth in forest-related outdoor recreation, particularly on the 19% of the total forest that is in the public domain. From 1948 to 1998, there was an 86% increase in permits to hunting and 132% of the fishing licenses issued by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

“In 1995-96, the National Forests provided nearly 4 million days of recreation per year. This growth has made the appearance of forests – natural beauty or lack thereof – an important factor. The use of the water in Arkansas has increased 200% over a 20-year period, and that has drawn attention to the effectiveness of forest watershed protection.”

Even as environmental concerns become more prominent, lumber production in the state increased 54% between 1950 and 1987.

A 1995 survey showed that the annual timber harvest had increased by 72 percent since the 1953 report.

Gray pointed out that effective fire protection, huge investment in tree planting and virtual elimination of logging waste were key factors in bringing Arkansas’ forests back from the brink. Those dark days of the late 1920s had become a distant memory. In fact, the state’s forest land area has increased another 1.6 million acres since 1978.

Arkansas’ forests now cover 18.9 million acres. That’s 56 percent of the state.

Net timber growth exceeds harvest by more than 18 million tonnes per year. From an economic point of view, the goal these days is not more trees. Instead, it’s an effort to find more uses for these trees in a state that’s producing timber at a much faster rate than it’s being harvested.


Rex Nelson is editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.