Questions remain over hurricane timber money
Florida’s timber industry could take a multibillion-dollar hit from Hurricane Michael.

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The state and federal government disagree on how much land should be eligible.

The Senate Agriculture Committee learned more Tuesday about the continuing reforestation efforts following Hurricane Michael.

Going on a year and a half later, it’s still a work in progress.

The industry suffered an estimated $1.3 billion in economic losses due to the Category 5 storm across nearly 3 million acres in the Panhandle. About 550 million trees were damaged or destroyed.

In the wake of that massive devastation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) late last year awarded Florida a $380.7 million grant to help timber producers recover from the effects of Hurricane Michael.

The money was lauded as a huge victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

However, the block grant program being developed is a fraction of what will be needed, and programming the money presents recurrent challenges, asserted outgoing Florida Forest Service Director Jim Karels on Tuesday.

Karels noted that federal reimbursement for timber loss was unprecedented.

“The $370 million was estimated need [from the state] … in October 2018,” Karels added. “That was the same number we asked for.”

The $370 million was for losses, with another $10 million for infrastructure. The number amounts to 40-50%, Karels added, allowing for land restoration.

“There’s not a lot of movement because they don’t have the funding to go out there,” Karels added. “They lost everything.”

Florida wanted a 10,000 acre cap originally; the USDA prefers  1,480 acres per applicant.

“That’s very low,” Karels said.

Wildfire risks and incursion of invasive species abound currently, creating more challenges.

“It’s like Groundhog Day every day for a lot of landowners … there isn’t a lot of hope yet,” Karels said.

Some landowners are already facing economic pressure to sell.

Sen. Bill Montford also wondered if there was enough staff to handle these requests.

The FFS will contract some staff, Karels said, to help with this and other federal programs.

“We’re going to have the funding,” Karels said.

Karels likened this recovery to the issues the citrus industry faced, and said that meetings with landowners will happen to get people signed up.

“We could move as quickly as six months,” Karels said, with the major sticking point being the cap. The state is willing to settle for a 5,000 acres cap.

“The funding is there,” Karels noted, and the 5,000 acre cap would allow Florida to recover 595,000 acres. Approximately 20 landowners would not get full reimbursement under that cap.

Under the current federal cap, the state may have to give back $100 million.

Expect the Senate Agriculture Committee to weigh in on this matter with a letter advocating the state’s position.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this post.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at [email protected]


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