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Millions In Federal Money To Restore Timber Industry After Hurricane Michael Could Go Unused

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NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
The federal block grant was awarded in November from a $19.1 billion national disaster-relief package signed by President Donald Trump.

Florida’s timber industry remains amid tons of strewn trees from Hurricane Michael as talks continue over the distribution of a $380 million federal-recovery grant allocated in November for the 2018 storm.

State officials expressed concern Tuesday that more than a quarter of the money may go unused as negotiations continue with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on eligibility requirements for Panhandle timber growers whose trees were snapped and knocked down by the Category 5 storm in October 2018.

“The last thing we want to do is send $100 million back to Washington,” said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat whose sprawling district includes areas directly hit by Michael. “We could use that $100 million in North Florida.”

State Forester Jim Karels who is retiring, told the Senate Agriculture Committee that an eligibility benchmark sought by federal officials would cover about 595,000 acres of timber land from among the 2.8 million acres -- about 72 million tons of timber -- damaged by the storm.

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“This is important and setting a low cap just really sets the state up for failure,” Karels warned.

The federal block grant was awarded in November from a $19.1 billion national disaster-relief package signed by President Donald Trump.

The USDA is offering to cover 1,480 acres or $900,000 per timber grower for land clearing and restoration.

The state initially wanted each grower to be eligible for funding with a 10,000-acre cap. But Karels said the state has lowered its request to 5,000 acres or $3 million per grower to get the process moving.

“Every acre we restore is an acre less that is a major fire threat, it’s an acre less where we have invasive species spreading,” Karels said. “It’s an economy issue of protecting 13,500 forestry jobs that are out there. That’s the major driving force of many of those counties. You’re reducing the fire threat, you’re reducing the invasives. You’re bringing this back to working lands again.”

ALSO READ: Lawmakers Boost Post-Michael Funding Requests

Karels noted that when the state received a similar block grant for the citrus industry following Hurricane Irma in 2017, the cap per grower was in parts up to 15,000 acres.

Even if the two sides reached an agreement today, it could still be about six months before funding starts to flow, Karels said.

Meetings with landowners would need to be set up, along with a website, before applications could be accepted, he said.

The state estimates that about 8,000 growers will sign up for the grant funding. But Karels said the longer the funding is delayed, more landowners will look to alternative uses for the land.

“There’s a lot of stories out there where landowners don’t have the funding anymore to hold on to it,” Karels said. “They may be trying to sell the land. They may be trying to do something different with it.”