Georgia’s New Timber Harvest Notification System Makes Its Debut By Stasia Kelly
Look out across the horizon in Georgia’s sixth largest county and you’ll likely see pine trees. Acres upon acres of pine trees.
“We’re one of the biggest forest baskets in the state,” said Emanuel County Administrator Guy Singletary. “We’ve got a couple of sawmills, a pellet mill and dimensional lumber mill, and we value the forest industry here in Emanuel County.”
It was only natural for Singletary to accept an invitation to come to the table when the Georgia Forestry Association began assembling a “timber harvest working group” in 2019. Also invited were representatives from the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC), ACCG (the association of Georgia’s county commissioners), timber harvesters and other industry partners. The goal was to create a uniform timber harvest notification (THN) process that serves both counties and the forestry sector well. The group’s work resulted in Georgia House Bill 897, which passed in 2020, requiring changes to OCGA 12-6-24.
Why was this needed? To create a more uniform, streamlined system that tracks timber harvesting activities and the necessary county notifications that accompany them. Logging companies were struggling to comply with different systems that varied from county to county, which resulted in confusion and frustration for logging companies and counties alike. In addition, some counties had different bond requirements, which made it more difficult for business owners to operate across county lines.
When the new law took effect in 2021, counties, harvesters and landowners began seeing tangible changes. They learned that the allowable fine for failure to comply with requirements had increased from $500 to $1,500. The scope for when a bond could be used was narrowed, though a county could not be prevented from pursuing other remedies to recoup damages to county roads or rights of way. The law also allows for incremental bond increases for harvesters who have previously caused damage to county roads and/or rights of way.
ACCG’s Kathleen Bowen and
Jones Co. Commission Chairman Chris Weidner helped design the new THN website and are hearing positive feedbackfrom users.
A ‘One-Stop Shop’ Site for Notifications A major feature of HB-897 was a charge to GFC to create a website that would serve as a statewide platform for harvesters to notify counties of timber harvesting. It was an arduous planning and design project that took the needs of all sectors of the forest industry into consideration.
Website designers on GFC’s Information Technology team focused on “ease of understanding” as they drafted a framework to fulfill the intent of HB-897.
“The information collected had to follow the law,” said GIS Specialist Michael Torbett. “Nothing more, nothing less.” Known affectionately by the group as the “wizard behind the curtain,” Torbett said he and his design team used the ArcGIS hub platform to develop the needed interactive digital forms and notification systems. Compatibility with various mobile devices and computer configurations was paramount.
Months of design work, analysis and user feedback followed. The inaugural version of the website was rolled out in 2021 to four test counties: Emanuel, Upson, Jones and Morgan. Later in the year, Pierce, Sumter, Clinch and Screven Counties joined the pilot program.
Some of the website improvements made along the way included the addition of information fields to collect landowner representative information and the requirement to include the names of public road entries and exits. An ArcGIS mapping function was removed due to security concerns. The finish line was nearing.
As a founding partner in the THN project, Legislative Associate for ACCG Kathleen Bowen expressed her confidence and enthusiasm just before the website went live on January 18, 2022.
“The Timber Harvest Notification website will establish statewide uniformity on the notification process,” she said. “Our counties will be able to keep better records, and the whole process will be more efficient.”
How It Works To get started using the new system, harvesters must first create an ArcGIS account. This is done by going to GFC’s public website at GATrees.org and then to the Forest Management section to launch the THN sign-up page. The “Submit a Timber Harvest Notification” box links to the ArcGIS worldwide platform and its registration page. Once instant registration is complete, users return to the GFC THN site to create a company account. After that information is vetted by GFC, usually within 24 hours, registrants are cleared to submit notifications. Torbett said this registration process was necessary for security reasons and as a way to quickly retrieve historical data during future use.
If required by the county or city, harvesters must submit a timber harvest notification no later than 24 hours after moving onto the site. Information needed on the form is simple to acquire and includes harvester and landowner names and contact information, harvesting location, bond information, and corresponding harvest dates. Once submitted, the notification automatically goes to the government officials determined during setup.
In Emanuel County, a copy of the notification is emailed to the Timber Harvest Group, which includes the offices of public works, tax assessor, code enforcement and administration. County Administrator Guy Singletary acknowledged that there was a “learning curve” involved in his county’s rollout, and “a few technical glitches with log-ins etc., which is to be expected.” He called the system a “one-stop shop” that’s easy to maintain and “much more efficient.” He said the county’s bond-verification capabilities have been enhanced through the system and that staff is seeing a reduction in administrative time — a commodity everyone covets.
“Loggers are busy,” Singletary said. “It doesn’t make sense for them to drive to an office when they can do this on their mobile phone. This gives them more time to do what’s profitable for them.”
All timber harvesters can use the system. However, the county or city must be participating for the notification process to work. As of February 2022, 29 counties have joined the system.
“Things are going well so far,” said GFC Forest Management Chief Scott Griffin, who has led the project for the commission. “We’re getting good feedback. Technically, it’s a little different for harvesters, but once they get logged in, it’s good.”
Jon Hutcheson works in Gillis Ag & Timber’s Wood Procurement group, and he concurs. “We struggled a bit at first, logging in,” Hutcheson said. “Nobody likes change and some of the guys who aren’t as computer savvy grumbled a bit. But it’s a lot quicker. Once you’ve saved the address as a favorite, all you have to do is click. It’ll be nice when the whole state comes online.”
GFC Director Tim Lowrimore couldn’t be prouder of the team that took this project to the finish line. “I’m really excited about it,” Lowrimore said. “It’s strong partnerships that made this possible, and in talking with my counterparts in 13 Southern states, it sounds like this will serve as a model.”
As adaptation to the system continues to spread, the two most common words being used by creators and users alike are “win-win.” Griffin invites all timber harvest entities to give it a try and spread the word.
“We’re here to help you learn the ropes,” Griffin said. “Everything’s on our website, and it’s really easy to do.” ■
Stasia Kelly is a media relations specialist with the 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.
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