Forest service officials remain optimistic that mass dieouts are a natural process, with forests bouncing back, but many landowners and timber experts say more bad news could plague the industry for years.
East Texas, a 43-county region ranging from the Red River, east of Dallas to Beaumont, lost 65.5 million trees among almost 1.5 billion trees, or 4.2 percent. In a typical year, 0.07 percent of Texas trees die from natural causes, he said.
The number was determined by studying on-the-ground tree health assessments this spring and before-and-after satellite imagery.
Original forest service estimates gathered last fall indicated roughly 100 million to 500 million trees had died as a result of drought.
Burl Carraway, Texas A&M Forest Service Forest Resource Development and Sustainable Forestry Program manager, said tree death is a natural forest process, and drought just caused more dramatic numbers.
“The drought produced traumatic results, especially for individual landowners. But the good news is the forest is resilient. When a dead tree falls over, a young, new tree eventually will grow back in its place,” Carraway said.
Carraway said a bright spot for the industry and the state was that the Southeast-East region, from Lufkin to Beaumont, where the state's heaviest forest production is located, suffered the least. Of the region's nearly 600 million trees, only 7.5 million died, he said, or 1.3 percent.
Losses were scattered around the region, Carraway said, and therefore relative for individual landowners.
James Houser, a forestry consultant in Jacksonville, anticipated bad news regarding drought-related tree deaths from the Texas A&M Forest Service, but the official numbers are the worst news he's heard in three decades in the business, he said.
“There will be a continuing mortality especially with hardwood trees because of canker,” he said. “Canker will be around for a while, and fortunately mills are working with us.”
Hypoxylon canker, a tree-killing fungus, is a continued threat to stressed trees. Drought weakens trees. Canker kills them. Dieouts can take years, which gives landowners time to monitor their forests and salvage losses, but Houser said the fungus is creating tough decisions for landowners invested in prime timber.
Houser recently decided to clear 900 acres of dead or dying trees because of canker. A tree pathologist diagnosed the area as a total loss within the next few years.
“He said 'absolutely they will die. Every one of them,'” and that meant pulling the trigger on it,” he said. “I've not ever dealt with (tree mortality) at this level.”
The high quality trees had not reached their potential, and rather than being cut for furniture or hardwood floors, they were cut for pallets and quality pulp, he said. Houser said the landowner received around $1,000 per acre, 20 percent to 30 percent less than if the trees were cut for higher-end products.
Rodney Schroeder, region manager for American Forest Management Inc., said that despite last year's drought, his company is sticking with long-term management schedules, which included tree plantings before the drought. It took more money to manage the trees, but they fared well, he said.
Schroeder said he worries that 2012 rains are beginning to dry up. Inspecting soil in May and June showed good moisture levels near the surface, but deep moisture had not been attained.
Carraway said losses are on par with other natural events such as Hurricane Rita in 2005, which devastated as much timber volume as the drought.
Trees die every day and make room for other trees, Carraway said.
“Anybody driving through northeast Texas who sees those red trees among the green will see fewer and fewer,” he said. “They stand out now, but they will be harvested or fall over and eventually the landscape will change to what it was.”