Pictured: GFC Director Tim Lowrimore tours Flint River Nursery in Byromville, GA. Left to right: Russell Ayers, GFC Flint River Nursery Coordinator; Ben Cobb, GFC Flint River Nursery Technician; Lowrimore; and Anita Johnson, GFC Arrowhead Seed Orchard Supervisor.
Since its inception by the Georgia General Assembly 100 years ago, the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) has faced many threats and challenges. This past year, however, has been uniquely difficult.
The confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, political and financial uncertainty, and supply chain challenges were just a few of the hurdles we faced. Add the onboarding of a new director, and things could have been bumpy. I am so proud to say I couldn’t be more pleased with the strength and resilience the agency has demonstrated, and that I have been privileged to witness.
As the pandemic unfolded, GFC carefully implemented best management practices to keep our team members safe while at work. With changing protocols, we were able to be flexible while protecting ourselves and our customers from a foe with whom we were quite unfamiliar.
In the early parts of 2020, GFC temporarily suspended the delivery of services, due to the uncertainties of COVID-19. The number of forest landowners’ unfulfilled service requests accumulated. Due to the volume of pending requests, local and area GFC resources around the state were unable to provide services at sufficient levels to meet the demand. GFC leadership, recognizing the importance of providing these services to the state’s forest landowners, developed a statewide strategy to deploy GFC resources into counties with the highest number of pending requests, providing services in a short time frame. We’re proud of the results. Efficient allocation of GFC personnel resources to deliver services will be a priority going forward.
During this time, we also relied on our values: integrity, respect and equality, utilizing facts to drive direction and be responsible for our success. That foundation was and is our true north. I’ve observed countless examples of our employees putting these values into practice. They take care of each other and the communities in which we live.
In Albany, in the spring of 2021, we partnered with the Department of Public Health to convert truck bays at our local office into a mass vaccination site for the surrounding area. It was rewarding to see our facility used as a conduit to good health and community service.
Out west, the summer wildfire season was declared at a preparedness level of 5. That means it had the potential to exhaust national firefighting resources. Due to the early onset and severity of the fires, the U.S. and Canada were unable to provide mutual aid as in previous years. More than 60 GFC wildland firefighters answered the call, some on multiple occasions, to combat blazes in California, Arizona, Washington, Minnesota and other western states. This effort was recognized by Governor Brian Kemp during a video call with our hand crew, led by Ranger Troy Helms, while they were serving in Washington near the Canadian border.
100 Years of Answering the Call The year 2021 was notable in another important way, in that it marked GFC’s centennial. It’s been remarkable to reflect on some of the agency’s past accomplishments, its people and the key initiatives that occurred during its first 100 years.
I routinely hear from previous GFC directors how fast change occurs in the agency. I’ve also learned that our agency has continuously adapted to those changes, met them head on, and always come out on the other side stronger. GFC has rightfully earned a reputation of being ready to adapt and respond when needed.
Reflecting on our history, it’s easy to see the State of Georgia places great value on the agency. The Georgia Forestry Commission is one of the first agencies to get the call when disaster hits. Here are just a few examples to illustrate:
● In 2007, the agency faced one of its most challenging wildfire seasons on record. Historic droughts and weather conditions led nearly 500,000 acres near Waycross to be consumed by wildfire. Our team worked tirelessly to protect lives, property and communities, despite the difficult conditions.
● In 2018, following Hurricane Michael, more than 200 GFC employees worked for months in southwest Georgia to clear downed trees and debris from roads that provided critical access for citizens and first responders. In the months that followed, as landowners struggled to recover from this major catastrophe, GFC personnel were on hand and on site, advising and helping landowners understand the help available to them.
● In the spring of 2020, during the early portions of the COVID-19 pandemic, GFC personnel supported logistical efforts by managing a medical supply warehouse in Kennesaw to supply necessary medical supplies to hospitals across the state. The experience and expertise of our Type 2 Incident Management Team brought order to chaos and was lauded by state emergency management leaders.
From wildfire to storms to the pandemic, GFC has always answered the call. Our commitment is to remain ready to help the forest community, the state and nation, whenever and wherever needed.
Meeting Future Challenges To ensure GFC will be positioned to address future challenges and opportunities, which arguably are coming at a much faster pace than ever before, we must continue to build on the strong reputation we have established. We must continue to grow, maintain and harvest our agency’s relevance with our stakeholders to ensure GFC is well capitalized.
It is an imperative prerequisite to preserving Georgia as the #1 forestry state in the nation.
The greatest challenge our agency faces today is attracting and retaining employees to our team. I know many of you reading this article face the same challenge. Numerous careers with the agency require individuals with critical skills and/or formal education. Wildland firefighters must have or obtain a Commercial Driver’s License, be proficient operating heavy equipment and become a certified wildland firefighter TYPE II. Foresters are required to have a bachelor’s degree in Forest Resources. A recent performance audit of our Protection Department highlighted the urgency of this challenge to our agency. Nearly 60% of our wildland firefighters have not experienced a significant wildfire season. Our agency data also indicates that 75% of our foresters have fewer than five years of service with the agency.
I have enormous confidence in our employees and our agency’s ability to continue to do everything possible to answer the call to manage and protect lives, property and communities. Yet I believe the current situation and trend, if not reversed, poses a significant threat to the agency’s ability to serve well. I believe it also, ultimately, puts the sustainability of our forests and the viability of the #1 forest economy in the nation at risk.
GFC’s mission and purpose remain relevant, and perhaps more important than ever. Ninety-one percent of Georgia’s forests are owned by private landowners. They rely on GFC for forest management leadership on everything from cost-share assistance to forest health issues, protection from wildfire and other threats. Many industry landowners, who in the past have owned wildland firefighting equipment, have disposed of that equipment — making them more dependent than ever on a well-equipped and trained GFC workforce. We know Georgia’s landowners are relying on us, and we are committed to protecting Georgia’s forests for all landowners, small and large.
We know wildfire response, prevention and mitigation efforts are crucial to reducing wildfires, which pose a significant threat to landowners and our forests. A significant mitigation tool we have against wildfire is prescribed fire. Georgia landowners and prescribed fire practitioners do an exceptional job getting prescribed fire implemented across our state’s landscape.
Last year, more than one million acres were burned in our state, according to permits on file. In the spring of 2021, GFC set records for pre-suppression firebreak installation and prescribed burning. The agency energetically exceeded our target of assisting with 150,000 acres of prescribed burns. Despite tough conditions with the pandemic and weather during the winter and spring of 2021, our people were motivated to use their expertise and skills to make a difference.
A Steadfast Pledge to Serve As GFC reflects on its first 100 years and looks forward to the coming years, a few things are certain. We know the way our agency does business will not look the same in the years ahead as it has in the past. We will learn from our first 100 years, including and especially from the pandemic, and we will implement lessons learned. Those lessons build our resilience, improve our ability to provide services and help us to maintain our readiness. Creating career ladders for employees, establishing an enthusiastic employee engagement strategy and communicating our “why” will be needed to instill passion and prepare the agency to push through hard times.
Nothing defines our agency’s “why” like a significant incident in late May. During the Fort Mudge wildfire near Waycross, GFC’s passion and ability to push through difficult situations were on full display amongst our personnel. Watching this team find the operating rhythm I observed during that incident is a priority goal I pledge to support every single day.
Our dedication to fulfilling our mission to serve the state and forestry community clearly begins with our people. We will continue to connect Georgia’s #1 forest economy in the nation with GFC’s work at ground level, as we leverage for investment in our agency and people. We we will use our support and influence to inspire our existing team members and attract new talent. We will always strive to engage with all of our team members to grow personally and professionally.
The Georgia Forestry Commission is an extraordinary place to work, with people who have grit and talent and heart. Those qualities fuel our steadfast pledge to serve.
I look forward to the days ahead, and I truly believe the best is yet to come.
I believe we have emerged stronger from the challenges of 2021, and I look forward to the days, months and years ahead. Over and over, our team members have demonstrated commitment, ingenuity and perseverance, continuing to serve landowners and communities — across Georgia and the nation. ■
GFC Director Tim Lowrimore served as a field forester in his early career and went on to hold various positions in private industry and public service. He is passionate about protecting and managing Georgia’s greatest natural resource — its forests.
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