Mobile’s position as a port city was millions of years in the making: layers of the Earth’s crust pressed and folded against one another, waterways cut new paths over land, glaciers advanced and receded. What we’re left with today is a region of extreme biodiversity and, importantly, rivers. Lots of rivers.
It’s no wonder then that forestry is Alabama’s leading manufacturing sector. Combine the state’s fertile forest land with its vast network of rivers trickling toward our port, and the result is a city that handles tons of lumber. Around 1.2 million tons a year to be exact. This month, learn about the trees that make up the vast Alabama forests and the city that sends them around the world.
PINE AND DANDY Alabama’s most predominate forest type is “loblolly pine.” (Try saying that ten times fast!) Also known as Southern yellow pine, loblolly is the second most common tree species in America and the most commercially important tree in our region. In fact, pine plantations make up 31 percent of Alabama’s timberland. As for hardwoods, the most harvested species in the state are red oaks, white oaks, sweet gums and yellow poplars.
GROW UP One appealing trait for foresters is the loblolly’s growth rate. One of the fastest growing Southern pines, it can grow more than 2 feet per year. In fact, Alabama grows more timber than it harvests. In 2014, the growth-to-removal ratio for softwoods was 1.48, meaning that for every cubic foot harvested, 1.48 cubic feet was grown.
DOWN WITH THE ILLNESS Like people, there are countless ways that trees can get sick. In fact, diseases “take” more trees every year in the United States than foresters. More often than not, fungus is the culprit, causing maladies such as fusiform rust, pitch canker, annosus root rot and brown spot needle blight — any of which could make for a killer band name.
INTO THE WOODS Different wood types have varying properties that determine how they are used by humans. Softwood (from conifers) has a fast rate of growth and low density, making it more suitable for building components and construction, and hardwood (from broad-leaved trees like oaks or poplars) grows slower, has a higher density, is more expensive and is used for finished housing items, like furniture or flooring.
Our history in lumber
- Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans made extensive use of Gulf Coast timber as a construction material for homes, ceremonial structures and everyday appliances. One of the most alluring artifacts at the History Museum of Mobile is a 700-year-old hand-hewn canoe discovered in 1976 on the west bank of the Alabama River near Fort Mims. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Native Americans also “cleared land for farming and occasionally set fires in the woods to drive game out for hunting.”
- Although the Civil War brought an end to Mobile’s cotton boom days, a new development was right around the corner. In the late 19th century, westward expansion coupled with the enormous growth of the nation’s cities and railroads led to an increased demand for all things wood. Mobile, a port city at the confluence of a network of rivers, was in the perfect position to capitalize on the opportunity. By the 1950s, Mobile’s lumber industry was exporting 7 million feet of lumber to markets such as Europe, South America and often the California gold fields.
- The Mobile Public Library’s Downtown branch’s namesake, Ben E. May, made his fortune during World War I, supplying England with timber for the war effort. He went on to found Gulf Lumber Company in Mobile and used his fortune to fund cancer and disease research throughout the country.
- Although the rise of the environmental movement and international competition curbed Alabama’s timber production, the industry’s continued impact on the region cannot be understated. Today, more than 122, 000 Alabama residents are employed in the forestry industry, and forest products are the second leading export from the Port of Mobile, behind coal.
Text by Breck Pappas