Politics & Government

GA timber industry hurt by storms, driver shortage but there’s reason to be optimistic

Buildings destroyed when Waverly Hall, Georgia hit by tornado

Matt Gillespie recorded this video of the damage after Waverly Hall, Georgia was hit by a tornado on March 3, 2019.
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Matt Gillespie recorded this video of the damage after Waverly Hall, Georgia was hit by a tornado on March 3, 2019.

The timber plots that blanket something near two-thirds of Georgia are, for their owners, a retirement, or a kid’s school tuition maybe, or maybe a rainy day fund. Most Georgia timberland is held by relatively small, often family, enterprises.

And when Hurricane Michael roared in late last year, it wiped away three-quarters of a billion dollars in timber alone. The state is still counting up the damages from storms last weekend that hit Harris and Talbot counties hard. And then there are other stresses for the industry: it’s hard to find log truck drivers; and insurance, equipment and fuel for them isn’t getting any cheaper.

It takes years just to grow little trees that will be thinned for pulp — maybe two decades or more for the sturdy trees that become, say, telephone poles. In the meantime, there are costs like property taxes to be paid.

The grower only has so many mill-customers. Truck logs too far and too much of the value is eaten up in the transportation. And some mills apply quotas — or limits on what they’ll buy — due to market or weather conditions.

Even besides storm damage, there are some real worries about the industry.

But there are green shoots too.

An anxious-looking state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black was at the state Capitol in late February, conferring with Gov. Brian Kemp about a proposed federal aid package for areas hit by Hurricane Michael. Those negotiations are still ongoing.

“For every tree that was snapped or blown over (due to Michael)… to harvest all of it, to have gotten it to market would have required 1.2 million log trucks,” Black said.

But once a tree has snapped 10 feet up, the wood might be unsafe to harvest or too smashed up to sell for much anyway. And once it’s laid around too long, it develops a color mills don’t like.

Debbie Buckner, from Junction City, feels for all the people who lost their retirements in Michael. And she’s got more worries about the industry too. She and her family grow timber and her son is a logger.

“Besides the fact everybody is concerned about the price (of timber), we’ve got concerns … about the extreme difficulty for people who might want to be CDL truck drivers,” said Buckner.

Numerous state schools teach commercial truck driving, but log trucks drivers need specialized training to handle conditions like dirt roads and very heavy loads that are liable to shift. Then, said Buckner, the insurance is so costly that it’s difficult for anyone to be a self-employed driver.

Bob Izlar seconded the concerns about finding drivers. He teaches forestry at the University of Georgia, and his family has what he calls a “small” timber holding: 100 acres in Butts County.

Izlar said he’s hearing this gripe in the industry: “Even if we can get a driver on a competitive pay scale — and that’s a big ‘if’ — are they going to be able to pass the drug test? And when they do, when they get a couple years’ experience, I’m going to lose them to the rock industry or I’ll lose them to Home Depot or Walmart or somebody like that.”

The trucker shortage is a national issue for trucking in general, he said.

Indeed, Georgia already waives tuition for people who study truck driving at technical colleges, because businesses need such staff.

But shortage is exacerbated for a rural job like log trucking, said Izlar. “How do you get folks to ‘stay on the farm?’” he said.

Buckner is also a Democratic state lawmaker, by the way. She said it might be time to consider some new policies to encourage more people to become drivers, to see what can be done about the insurance rates, about when mills can impose quotas. Especially during times of emergency — when you might have all those trucks-worth of timber on the ground.

It’s probably a bit late in the short annual state legislative session in Atlanta to move any legislation this year, but she’s thinking about asking for a study committee. That’s a typical way for groups of state lawmakers to hold hearings and spend some months, or even a few years, making changes.

Andres Villegas is CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association, a trade group that covers landowners, loggers, manufacturers and more.

He’s optimistic about the industry, though there are some challenges.

“Where we really see sensitivity is the harvesting and logistics sides of things,” said Villegas.

It’s been rainy for months, which slows things down. But there are some things under human control that he says slow down productivity: things like inspections by the state Department of Public Safety or counties that ban heavy log trucks from certain routes. (The heavy trucks are tough on the pavement.)

“We understand that all those things are part of how we need to operate, but we also are hoping that we can find more efficient ways to do that,” Villegas said.

He also said the organization wants to let students know that whether they have a GED diploma or PhD, there’s a place for them in the forest product sector.

“Folks can make a very good living and not have to deal with the traffic in Atlanta,” he joked.

But he’s bullish because of things like paper cups, paper food packaging, delivery boxes, the “fluff pulp” in diapers and sanitary pads, lumber for houses. There’s one new thing he mentions too: a new method of framing tall buildings in timber.

One is going up in Atlanta, Villegas said, a seven-story building near Ikea. Folks in other parts of the world are already making tall buildings out of wood.

Izlar, the professor, brought up the very same thing. Once building code folks are convinced of this method, Izlar said, it’ll be a market driver.

The damage from Michael was awful, Izlar said. And he’s been reading those reports of discouraged farmers.

But the industry will go on.

“I am optimistic,” Izlar said. “Foresters are trained to be long-term thinkers.”

Legislative reporter Maggie Lee began covering the state Capitol in Atlanta for The Telegraph in 2011.


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