Valuing and protecting Mississippi's forests, preserving clean water and supporting a healthy ecosystem and its wildlife were discussed at the Hancock/Harrison County Forestry and Wildlife Association Policy Makers Luncheon on Friday at the Pass Christian Yacht Club.
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"The state of forestry is very good and positioned well and conditioned to grow and prosper with the right tools," said Tedrick Ratcliff Jr., executive vice president of the Mississippi Forestry Association, Hancock/Harrison County's parent association. "There are a ton of opportunities in this part of the world for children and people of all ages to experience so much of our natural resources and to work with landowners to experience all of those natural things."
Ratcliff spoke on the non-economic benefits of a healthy forest industry in the state's lower six counties.
Glenn Hughes, extension forester for Mississippi State University, addressed the economic affects.
Hughes said 16,000 private timberland owners in the South Mississippi region own forestland valued at more than $80.6 million, with a standing timber value of $1.7 billion. Such property is producing more than $9 million in taxes and creating 2,213 jobs annually.
"You're talking about 16,000 small businesses, because most of these landowners own less than 100 acres and employ less than five people," he said. "You go down the criteria of a small business; every single tree farmer is probably a small business. That's a tremendous asset for families across this area."
Hughes said Stone County dominates the local industry with mills producing a variety of forest products, responsible for up to 64 percent of the county's jobs and income.
Ratcliff said an emphasis on protecting the environment within the region's forest fosters better quality of life and recreational activities for families.
"A good thing we can do is to think about what you're doing next weekend," Ratcliff said. "Step outside and look what's around you. If it's from a tourism perspective, like bird-watching or going fishing for a weekend, that's an opportunity where you can experience forestry firsthand."
Hughes said not to take for granted the forests or those working to maintain them.
"If you drive around, you see trees all over South Mississippi. A lot of work goes into either getting those trees planted or managing them," he said. "We kind of assume that these forests were always there. That's not necessarily true. A lot of work has gone into getting the forest land back to where it is right now. What we want to do is to manage or sustain it, so that we can have things like paper, cardboard, lumber for houses. We want those for our generation, but also for succeeding generations as well."
Representatives of several elected officials, such as Sens. Roger Wicker's and Thad Cochran's offices, along with Rep. Steven Palazzo and several landowners attended the luncheon, along with several Hancock and Harrison county officials and representatives from De Soto National Forest and the state Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
"It would be important for us to hear from the landowners, to have a relationship with them," said Harrison County Supervisor Angel Kibler-Middleton. "You start the conversation, and then you'll know if they're having issues. If it's things that have to do with the law and making things tough for them, then we need to have a conversation to know what's holding them up, what can we do to make it better? We start at the local level, then work up to the state."