"That's a staggering number. That's an amazing number, but that's a real number," said Chuck Leavell, the keyboard player for the Rolling Stones and large tree farmer in south Georgia.
Economists have long been able to estimate the commercial and recreational value of timberland, but this study represents the first attempt to put a dollar amount on the environmental benefits, said Steve McWilliams, the president of the Georgia Forestry Association. The association was among the handful of advocacy groups funding the study.
Researchers from the University of Georgia's Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources spent three years looking at the 22 million acres of privately owned timberland, the biggest amount of any state in the nation. They gauged factors such as water filtration, carbon storage, wildlife habitat and aesthetics from the six types of forest ecology found in the state. Then they figured what each of those factors was worth in the marketplace.
Environmental advocates hope the study's findings will demonstrate a financial value to preserve the land from development. They will likely argue that those financial benefits justify the tax breaks that property owners get for growing trees.
Because 92 percent of the state's forest land is owned by individuals, devising policies that provide incentives to property owners is cheaper than having taxpayers try to buy up acreage to preserve land for environmental purposes, advocates say.
Nevertheless, Gov. Nathan Deal, the son of an agriculture teacher, said that considering the $28 billion annual value of Georgia's wood-products industry, the state should exploit its timberland strengths. He pointed out that Georgia is a major exporter of wood pellets to Europe for heating and energy.
"I want Georgia to be the leader in the production of biomass," Deal said.