The Georgia Forestry Association (GFA) was founded in 1906 to represent the forestry community at the local, state and federal level. Its purpose was to advocate for a business and political climate that supports the economic and environmental sustainability of Georgia’s 22 million acres of working forests and the businesses who steward them. GFA’s mission has remained steadfast, and the organization has remained focused on developing and supporting policy that capitalizes on the more than 100 years of leadership that have made Georgia the #1 Forestry State in the Nation.
For the 2023 Session of the Georgia General Assembly, GFA’s leadership and government affairs team has developed a set of legislative priorities that are designed to bring transformative change to the forest industry, which is adapting to economic challenges that have been exacerbated by inflationary pressure and the supply chain challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For the past five years, we have advocated for and successfully passed more than 14 pieces of legislation to increase the competitiveness of our entire sector by reducing supply chain inefficiencies and removing barriers to healthy markets,” said GFA President and CEO Andres Villegas. “A key to our success is strong support from our members through our ForestPAC and Forest Resource Teams (FORT), which allow us to ensure that our issues are front and center with Georgia law and policy makers.”
Increasing Allowable Haul Weights on State Roads
Georgia currently has the lowest truck weights in the Southeast, placing us at a major economic disadvantage compared to our neighboring states. Additionally, the trucking and logistics sector is under enormous pressure today, not just for any one industry or commodity, but for the broader Georgia economy. Because of this, GFA and a coalition of other agricultural producers are advocating to increase the gross vehicle weight for trucks hauling goods on state roads. The Georgia Economic Competitiveness Coalition is advocating for an increase in the allowable gross vehicle weight from a base weight limit of 80,000 lbs. plus a 5% weight variance (or 84,000 lbs. total) to 80,000 lbs. plus a 12.5% variance (or 90,000 lbs. total).
- Why it matters: The entire forestry supply chain is dependent on the ability to efficiently transport timber to the mill. During a time of historic inflation and labor shortages, increasing truck weights to 90,000 lbs. across multiple industries would help counter these impacts by greatly reducing the number of trips and drivers needed to transport the same amount of material. This leads to millions of miles not traveled across roads and bridges, reducing operational costs for producers and increasing safety by reducing the frequency of trucks on the road.
- What they are saying: Harry Sanders of Sanders Logging in Cochran, GA, said, “The ability to get products to market efficiently is crucial for the forestry industry, which is dependent on moving high volumes of timber. Increasing allowable haul weights would be critical for our business, as it will help us address driver shortages, high fuel and input costs and ever-increasing insurance costs. The forest industry needs this legislation to maintain productivity and efficiency to keep our businesses alive.”
- By the numbers: According to data from the University of Georgia, the timber supply sector is dealing with an aging workforce and increasing turnover demand. Inflation has also had a massive impact, increasing the costs per ton by $2.50 over the last year, according to Forisk Consulting. This equates to roughly an additional $7,500/week for timber suppliers to maintain production levels.
Last year, GFA helped champion House Bill 496, sponsored by Rep. James Burchett (R-Waycross), which would have increased Georgia’s allowable Gross Vehicle Weight for trucks hauling raw forest products. While the bill did not get through the legislature, it helped set the groundwork to introduce new legislation for the 2023 Session.
Reforming Timber Severance Taxation
When farmers harvest cotton, peanuts, blueberries, peaches or any other agricultural commodity, they are not subject to an additional tax at the time of harvest. However, when landowners harvest standing timber, they are subject to a harvest tax on 100% of the timber’s fair market value. GFA is proposing a constitutional amendment that would reduce the ad valorem tax rate on harvested timber to be assessed on 40% of the fair market value, which is on par with other real property (e.g. homes, vehicles, etc.).
- Why it matters: Even when preferential conservation programs are considered, Georgia has higher taxes than any of its neighboring states, and even though landowners don’t always get annual returns, they still pay annual taxes. Urbanization is the greatest threat to forestry in the state, and a more equitable severance tax that treats timber like other real property would help ensure landowners’ ability to maintain working forests. Reducing the severance tax on timber would create equity in taxation for timberland owners and help improve Georgia’s competitiveness with other timber-producing states.
- What they are saying: Dr. Matilda Riles, a forest landowner from Liberty County, GA, said, “As a small forest landowner, it is already very difficult and costly to manage, harvest and reforest our land. The profits from a timber sale on our property go directly to reforesting the land and paying the taxes from the harvest. I do want to keep my land in our family; however, I must ensure that it is a blessing and not a burden.Beyond our own land, we often talk with heirs’ property landowners in our community. Their land is already tied up with expensive legal issues and back taxes on the property. When they are educated on all the taxes they have to pay — both annual property tax and the tax at the time of harvest — it is hard to keep them interested in retaining the land, because they cannot realize the profit. When their land is sold, it is often converted to a neighborhood or a parking lot. So, not only does the family lose the value of owning the land, our community loses all the benefits that the forest provided.”
- By the numbers: More than half (55%) of forestland in Georgia is owned by private, non-industrial (or non-corporate) landowners. Studies have shown that the average cost of services provided to residential properties is $1.19 per dollar of revenue raised. However, working and open lands receive only $0.37 on average for each dollar of revenue raised (similar returns are experienced by commercial properties). This imbalance between property types is not sustainable, because while the vast majority of property value is held in residential properties, this use is being subsidized by commercial owners and working lands.
GFA will be supporting the introduction of harvest (severance) tax legislation in the 2023 Session. If the bill is passed with a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Georgia General Assembly, voters will be asked to approve it by Constitutional Amendment on the next General Election ballot in November 2024. If passed by the voters of Georgia, the legislation would become effective in 2025.
Increasing Efficiency with Forestry Licensing in Georgia
Foresters in Georgia are required to maintain a professional license with the State of Georgia in order to purchase and sell timber. Currently, the licensing process runs through the Secretary of State’s office. However, following a recommendation from GFA members and the Georgia Board of Registration for Foresters, GFA is championing legislation to move the administrative process to be housed under the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC), to increase efficiency in renewing and maintaining professional forestry licenses.
- By the numbers: Georgia leads the nation in acres of commercially available timberland and volume of timber harvested annually. All of these timber transactions have to be conducted by a licensed forester. According to initial research from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute for Government, there are 71 new foresters needed each year for the next five years to keep up with the current demand for professional foresters.
- Why is this important? To ensure the credibility and a standard of professionalism within the practice of forestry in Georgia, one must attain a license by taking a test administered by the Society of American Foresters and maintain that license every two years by meeting the requirements for continuing education set by the Board. It is critical that the licensing process is administered in an efficient and productive manner to keep foresters’ licenses current while supporting new foresters in attaining their licenses.
- Why the Georgia Forestry Commission? As the primary agency responsible for law enforcement and investigations and with district offices spread across the state, the GFC already serves as the principal interface with foresters, landowners and logging companies for all issues pertaining to timber theft, wildfire protection, forest health, water quality and more. As such, the GFC is best positioned to meet the increase in demand for licensing services and communication with professional foresters across the state.
GFA is working with Rep. John Corbett (R-Lake Park), to introduce legislation to move the Board to GFC.