ATLANTA -- The annual environmental value of Georgia's private forest land is $37.6 billion, according to a study by the University of Georgia released Wednesday at a Capitol press conference.
"That's a staggering number. That's an amazing number, but that's a real number," said Chuck Leavell, keyboard player for the Rolling Stones rock band 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, president of the Georgia Forestry Association. The association was part of 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 different types of forest ecology found in the state.
Then they figured what each of those factors were 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.
Since 92 percent of Georgia’s forest land is owned by private individuals, devising policies that provide incentives to property owners is cheaper than having taxpayers try to buy up acreage in an effort to preserve land for environmental purposes, advocates say.
Nevertheless, Gov. Nathan Deal, the son of an agriculture teacher, said the state should exploit its timberland strengths, noting the $28 billion annual value of Georgia’s wood-products industry. He specifically pointed to the fact that Georgia is a major exporter of wood pellets to Europe for heating and energy production.
"I want Georgia to be the leader in the production of biomass," Deal said.