GFC’s William Whitley talks wood-energy technology with Harold Arnold, President of FRAM Renewable Fuels, and GFC’s Devon Dartnell.
Trees are still growing. They’ll be there with or without the virus.” That assessment of current conditions by Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) Forest Utilization Chief Risher Willard can be comforting to people witnessing an unprecedented pandemic. For those closely allied with the forest products industry, it’s a truth that helps us navigate fluctuating markets and a variety of opinions about what’s to come.
“The truth is, Georgia has an abundance of forest products,” said Willard. “Forests are still there. Partners, companies, good infrastructure, logistics, they’re all still there. There is continued demand, despite COVID.”
Willard’s team of five forest marketing experts has continued crunching critical data as well as nurturing relationships with forest landowners and industry prospects since business protocols changed drastically in March. Traditionally, work done by the Marketing and Utilization Department, built to help sustain the economic viability of forestland ownership, involved calendars packed with personal visits, tours and exhibitions. Now, more phone calls and emails support business relationships. More time is also devoted to webinars, Zoom meetings, research and reading as well as analysis of Georgia’s forests and its forest products industry.
Two essential department functions that can never be pushed to a back burner are the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program and the Timber Product Output (TPO) Survey. The GFC’s FIA foresters collect forestland data on designated plots throughout the state. Information gathered includes species, size and health of trees, ownership classes, and changes from previous years. The data is forwarded to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for analysis. Forest trend information helps resource managers, policy makers, investors and the public make decisions that affect both public and private forestlands across the country.
The annual TPO is produced by the USFS, utilizing FIA data and input from primary wood-using industries in the state. Forest Utilization staff gather information from mills and wood product manufacturers that quantifies the production of forest products and the amount of timber removals in Georgia. Surveyed industries include pulp mills, sawmills, veneer and composite panel mills and industrial products mills. According to Willard, the participation rate for the 2019 survey was the lowest ever recorded, which can be generally blamed on the COVID-19 situation.
GFC publishes a directory of primary wood-product facilities throughout the state every two years. The Georgia WoodUsing Industries Directory is designed to serve as a reference for producers seeking to market their wood products and for wood users trying to locate suppliers.
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Nurturing the Ties That Bind “Relationships are critical,” said Devon Dartnell, GFC’s Director of Market Analysis and Research. “We serve the landowners of Georgia, we serve industry, we serve the entire value stream.” Yet some prospects that were on the department’s radar are now “on pause,” as Willard terms it.
“We were working on several wood products projects, and four or five of those were new,” he said, “but they fell flat. To invest, companies need certainty, which is not there now.” Willard added that despite the uncertainty, the wheels have not stopped turning. A Georgia Pacific pine sawmill in Albany is cranking up, and several pellet mill prospects are on the horizon. Initiatives surrounding climate change, carbon, bioenergy and sustainability are alive and well.
One event that has always been valuable for outreach is the International Woodworking Fair, held annually in Atlanta. This global convention and expo for the woodworking industry allows GFC to showcase the state’s reliable and wide-ranging forest resources. Regrettably, the 2020 expo was canceled due to the pandemic.
An event that was able to be staged in July allowed GFC to reach a different, diverse audience. Visitors to the GFC exhibit at the Atlanta Build Expo included building contractors, real estate brokers and developers, forest landowners, engineers and architects. Operating with safety protocols in place, GFC staff fielded inquiries about timber removal for development, managing personal timberland, primary and secondary wood-using industry directories, and mass timber.
“Mass timber and cross-laminated timber are big right now,” said Dru Preston, GFC’s Utilization and Marketing Staff Forester. “They’re big market opportunities for southern yellow pine as a construction material.”
Mass and cross-laminated timber are layered assemblies of lumber that are fastened together using glue, nails or dowels, and that have strength superior to concrete as a structural building material. The Pacific Northwest and Europe boast many mass-timber buildings.
There are two in Atlanta, though more can be expected now that the Governor has signed a bill to review the International Building Code to consider allowing such construction in Georgia.
One of mass timber’s biggest selling points is its ability to sequester carbon — a benefit that is becoming a hot topic for businesses throughout the world. As companies seek ways to reduce their carbon footprint, the spotlight is increasingly turning to the forest.
“Companies are now putting their money where their mouth is,” said Dartnell. “They need to stay sustainable. It’s the right thing to do, and their customers are demanding it. And forests can do it naturally.”
Dartnell said forests sequester carbon while trees are growing, they continue to store it after the tree is harvested, and carbon can be stored inside a cross-laminated timber panel for hundreds of years to come. Then, the cycle repeats with a newly planted seedling.
Where’s the Money? Getting money into landowners’ pockets for their product is a constant mission. One model for that is showing success in the Northeast and is a template being tested in Georgia. The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands Program provides carbon credits to landowners who implement forestry practices for the sequestration of more carbon, to produce more wood. Those credits can then be sold to businesses that buy them for carbon offsets. The process is being used in Europe and California with good success, and Dartnell said the time is right to start doing this in the wood basket of the Southeast.
Dartnell is optimistic as well about current Georgia research on the treatment of fiber to achieve new outcomes, and the utilization of certain emissions for novel products.
“Instead of paying to knock solids out of industrial exhausts, maybe they can be captured and converted to useful, valuable products,” Dartnell said. “Things like medicines and fragrances. Or capture carbon extracts and return and reuse them, even inject them into a soda bottle for carbonization. The public is very interested in making these things happen.”
Another process that is getting a lot of interest is the variety of ways wood fibers can be treated to make them more usable. In a process called torrefaction, wood pellets are heated in the absence of oxygen to make them more energy dense and hydrophobic. The black wood pellets become energy-packed powerhouses and withstand wet transportation issues that disintegrate traditional white pellets.
Willard and Dartnell cite ongoing political issues that are clouding the market picture, including tariffs on China and the fact that without an extension of the H-2B bill, migrant workers may not be available for reforestation activities this planting season. While some say this is an opportunity for U.S. labor, others insist the reality of those jobs being filled by Americans is slim. According to Willard, without migrant labor, forest management methods could change from traditional to non-traditional methods in the long term.
Willard said a shift from planned planting to natural seeding would be much less productive. If a bad seed year is encountered, germination can be hindered. On the other hand, in a good seed year, instead of 500 to 600 healthy trees per acre, 5,000 could grow, creating difficulty with thinning and harvesting machinery. “There are lots of variables,” Willard said.
GFC’s Reforestation Chief Jeff Fields agreed, saying commercial nurseries and landowners would be most affected by that sequence of events.
“GFC’s Flint River Nursery’s situation is different because we don’t use H-2B workers,” Fields said. “All of the seedling lifting and packing crews we use during tree planting season are hired as temporary day labor. They’re run through the E-Verify system, so they are either documented resident aliens or U.S. citizens.” Seedling sales for the upcoming season are well underway at GFC, and supply and demand are at expected levels.
Clearly, every segment of the forestry community has been impacted by the events of recent months. And while predictions for the future are rarely guarantees of what’s to come, the continual growth of trees can certainly be a steady guide to better days ahead. ■
Stasia Kelly is a media relations specialist with Georgia Forestry Commission. Stasia is focused on telling the story of forestry and the immense impact of the industry on Georgia’s environment, economy and heritage.
Georgia Forestry Magazine is published by HL Strategy, an integrated marketing and communications firm focused on our nation's biggest challenges and opportunities. Learn more at hlstrategy.com