Last week's mixture of wind and ice snapped and toppled pine trees across parts of South Carolina, including the Lowcountry, threatening major financial losses for one of the state's major economic engines.
The S.C. Forestry Commission is conducting reconnaissance flights to assess the damage to the state's supply of more than 13 million acres of timber, which includes roughly 88 percent owned by private owners.
The state agency plans to give updates on statewide damages as early as Tuesday, officials said.
Crad Jaynes, president and CEO of the S.C. Timber Producers Association, suggested Monday that damages could be worse than the $95.8 million tallied after an ice storm in February 2004. That storm resulted in 15 counties seeing significant timber damage stretching from Aiken County east to Horry County.
"I'm hearing back in 2004 it was in the Midlands to Florence," Jaynes said. "This one is that, but it's in lower sections too, and as one of my members said in Colleton County, it looks like a war zone."
The storm threatens to splinter the state's forestry industry, since some trees have been damaged before reaching full value or could be left to rot. Some younger trees will recover, but the timber market prefers straight trees.
That means survival doesn't guarantee maximum marketability upon final harvest, said Scott Hawkins, spokesman for the commission.
Hawkins said Monday that the state agency could seek federal assistance for landowners. That would provide advice on how to deal with damage, how to minimize damage impacts to the industry and to individual landowners.
Initial reports identify widespread damage to forests in the eastern half of the state. For the coastal region, which extends from Orangeburg County to the southern half of state's coastal counties, damage grows more severe farther inland, Hawkins said.
That includes younger pines, particularly in stands that have been thinned, which fared worse than those trees in more established stands, he added.
In the Lowcountry, damages were reported in Berkeley County and its large swaths of forests, such as in the Pinopolis area.
The damage extends to larger swaths of the county, a result of the ice stripping branches and weighing down the trees so much they snapped, according to some property owners.
Damaged trees pepper a small part of the roughly 230 acres in Moncks Corner owned by Mendel Mitchum, vice president of Carolina Land & Timber.
"A lot of it was from so much rain with (the ice) that it saturated the ground and the trees just fell over," he said. "When it didn't, it just broke in half."
Mitchum said the storm has produced a bittersweet situation. That's because he's part owner of the timber company that could be tapped to help property owners clear damaged land.
"Hopefully it will help my business since there are people that got damage and they need to get it cleaned up as much as they can," he said.
Mitchum describes himself as one of the lucky timber landowners in the area, citing worse damage for some others.
"I didn't lose a lot, but I lost some," he said. "I know of some land owners that lost anywhere from 25 to 30 percent."
Marvin Wiggins described nearly two-thirds of his 175 acres of woods in the Macedonia area as being littered with remnants of the tall trees that once stood.
Wiggins said his insurance policy did not cover the damaged. Late Monday afternoon, he said he was still trying to decide what to do with the damaged land.
"I got several people looking at it," he said.
Timber is a major economic engine for the state. South Carolina's 13 million acres of privately owned forestland support an industry that impacts the state's economy by $17 billion annually, according to the Forestry Commission.
The commission's 2011 report, the most recent, says timber is tied to 90,624 jobs and $4.1 billion in payroll.
One of the last major catastrophes to the state's forestry industry was in 2009 when a wildfire damaged 19,000 acres along Highway 31 in Horry County, producing about $17 million in timber damages, according to the Forestry Commission.
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