Recently, Growing Georgia, a daily e-newsletter for Georgia’s agriculture community, featured the Georgia Forestry Association (GFA), highlighting the Association’s current advocacy work and vision for the future. GFA President and CEO Andres Villegas and Chairman Benjie Tarbutton were both interviewed. The article is pasted below, or click here to view the post on www.growinggeorgia.com.
Healthy Forests, Healthy Economy – A Closer Look At The Georgia Forestry Association
The state of Georgia is blessed with over 25 million acres of forests, boasting 250 native tree species. It’s great for tourism, but even more important, it’s huge for Georgia’s economy.
Along with plenty of acreage for recreational and tourism, 92% of the state’s forests are privately owned and part of a $28 billion industry that employs 135,000 people up and down the supply chain.
The entire supply chain is represented in Georgia, from timber to processing to end product. The state is also the largest exporter of wood products in the US—and forestry products are the third largest export out of the state.
Advocacy Is Job One
Ensuring that forestry remains a healthy and viable industry is the primary mission of one organization – the Georgia Forestry Association (GFA).
GFA President & CEO, Andres Villegas, is a new addition to the organization, taking over in January from long-time CEO, Steve McWilliams.
Villegas plans to use his first year to focus on a key part of the GFA mission – advocacy.
“One thing that makes Georgia different is that we have a huge urban city—Atlanta, and that alone results in our state growing faster than any in the Southeast,” says Villegas. “With each increase in our urban population, the knowledge gap gets wider and wider. That requires not only us working harder at the legislative level but also to be much more present in both rural and urban communities. Raising awareness and creating opportunities to educate and enlighten people about what we do is critical.”
That’s exactly why Villegas is so committed to empowering GFA members to be their own advocates.
“GFA opens doors,” says Villegas, “but at the end of the day, it’s members advocating for themselves that really makes the difference. We want to give them every opportunity to do that.”
New Ways To Tell The Story
Villegas believes GFA members must tell their story “whenever and wherever possible, whether that’s in a club, a church or any place else that they and their friends connect.”
And what is that story?
“We need every Georgia citizen to understand that forests and their related industries are integral to their everyday lives,” says Villegas, “from improving the air and water, to providing the paper and other products that make life easier.”
Recently, Villegas took member advocacy to an inventive new level.
“Taking our members to meet and talk with legislators is nothing new,” explains Villegas, “which is exactly why we decided to shake things up with something more memorable and engaging.”
Villegas and his team came up with idea of a “selfie contest” in which members would be challenged to take and post photos of themselves with different legislators.
“Taking a photo and sharing it was a great icebreaker with long-lasting impact,” says Villegas. “The selfie contest immediately created conversation with the legislators. And dialogues were born and have continued that didn’t exist before. There’s simply nothing as effect as a face-to-face conversation where the story gets told by the person with boots on the ground.”
Taking Action On Behalf Of Members
In addition to advocacy, the GFA addresses ongoing legislative issues like private property rights, environmental regulations like WOTUS, and market access.
Responsible use of eminent domain is essential to our industry,” says Villegas. “The challenge here in Georgia is that many of our laws have been cobbled together over 70 years, and not all have adapted to landowner values and economic values. It definitely creates a struggle between private developers and forest landowners. Profitability isn’t necessarily progress.”
When battle lines are drawn, one of the challenges forest landowners often face is how to pay for expensive litigation and assistance, while still maintaining their own operating expenses, which includes significant property taxes.
In fact until just a few years ago, forest landowners were being taxed at a commercial level, even though no buildings existed anywhere on their land. “It was driving people out of the industry,” says Villegas, “and something had to be done.”
Here again, GFA has come to the aid of its members. The organization has helped push through legislation such as the Conservation Use Valuation Assessment (CUVA) and the Forest Land Protection Act, both of which provided significant tax relief.
“Georgia is different than many other states when it comes to regulatory challenges,” says Villegas. “In other states, much of the forest land is on federally-owned property. In Georgia, 2/3 of the state is covered with privately held forests. It becomes a problem when one-size-fits-all policies are set that don’t take our differences into consideration.”
Another factor that sets Georgia apart is that forest owners and farmers share the land. Even more important, they play well together.
Many growers actually own both forest and farm land, with one morphing into the other across the acres. The blending of interests is actually a unifying force and representative organizations work closely together in behalf of all.
“At the regulatory level, we all share the same concerns,” says Villegas. “We’re fortunate here in Georgia that we have leaders who respect that we’re all on the same boat together and recognize that we’re only stronger as a team.”
A Team Effort
Steering the GFA is hardly a one-man job. The organization maintains a 15-person executive board and an 80-person advisory board, both made up of volunteer businesspeople.
New Board Chairman, Benji Tarbutton, also appointed in January, plans to work closely with Villegas to establish and refine GFA objectives, identify policy issues and act as the liaison between the two boards and the CEO’s office. “I see my role as insuring good communication between all,” says Tarbutton.
“Andres and I spend a fair amount of time discussing where we can boost advocacy initiatives” says Tarbutton, “or make structural changes to help us better implement GFA’s primary functions. It’s truly a team effort.”
Tarbutton, like Villegas, appreciates that they represent an industry with such a positive story to tell.
“It’s really an honor to promote an industry so closely tied to improving the quality of everyone’s life,” says Tarbutton. “We also appreciate that our industry has so many positive, non-economic benefits, from protecting the watershed to contributing cleaner air and water. At the end of the day we’re using a renewable, sustainable resource to make a value added product. It’s a winning story.”
And it’s a story that Villegas and Tarbutton will continue to make sure that all of Georgia, and all of the country understands and celebrates.
“We can hire lobbyists to speak on our behalf and we do, but this is just the blocking and tackling,” says Villegas, “but winning over our communities and understand our value—this needs to come from the people in the industry. That makes it authentic and meaningful.”
For more information on the GFA, visit: https://gfagrow.org/