If money grew on trees, loggers would be the richest men on earth. These days, however, they’d be happy just to break even.
“Logging is honest-to-God a dying breed,” said Trevor Crosby, owner of Echols Timber Harvesting based in Lake Park. “All these older men, they can’t keep logging, much as they want to.”
So it’s up to younger men like Crosby – a business owner at 20 – to take their place. He’s one of the few young men willing to commit his time and resources to the industry. Among the few like him who dream of having their own logging business, financial obstacles make it impossible to branch out on their own.
“The financial strain to get into the timber business is tremendous,” said Chad Nimmer, a procurement forester for Pierce Timber Co. in Blackshear. “It is becoming more of a strain for a young man…to find a lender who would go out and be able to legally finance him.”
Timber is still a big business in Georgia. According to Tom Harris, professor of forest business management at the Warnell School of Forestry at UGA, Georgia and Oregon are near the top of the softwood lumber and softwood pulp and paper business in the country.
“We also have a pretty good sized hardwood industry in the state,” Harris said.
Dr. Dale Greene, dean of UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry, said Georgia has more acres in forest cover than it did 50 years ago.
“We are growing more tons per year than we’re cutting statewide by a healthy margin in hardwood stands,” Greene said. “In pine stands we’re closer to cutting our growth but we still grow a little more than we harvest.”
So there’s plenty of wood to meet the demand but not enough labor to deliver it to market. While other industries – including banking – seem to be on the mend from the Great Recession of 2008, the loggers who harvest and transport the raw materials for the nation’s construction industry, pulp and paper manufacturers, and biofuel producers are seeing their ranks dwindle.
“We are directly tied to loggers. We don’t make any money without them,” said Derrick Herring, owner of Flatwoods Forest Products, a timber dealer based in Echols County.
Nimmer and Herring contract with independent logging crews to harvest the timber they market. When the housing market crashed and the banking industry tightened the purse strings, loggers were among the first to suffer; they’re among the few who continue to suffer now that the economy is stabilizing, both men said.
“There are some good loggers that want to have the opportunity to own and operate their own business that I think would be good managers, but they face such uphill battles trying to get financing that it deters them,” Herring said.
Georgia offers many other enticing job opportunities to young people today, Greene of the Warnell School said. They don’t have to get out and fight for the opportunity to make a living the way their parents and grandparents once did.
“As you get closer to the coast in particular you’ve got the ports, you’ve got other industries that are competitive. They have a variety of industries to choose from,” Greene said.
Regulations, too, make it much tougher to go into business. Logging crews include commercial truck drivers who must be insurable. That means a clean driving record and a clean drug test.
“That can cut out two-thirds of your labor pool in some areas,” Greene said. “(Timber harvest) production could be 25 percent higher if they could hire truck drivers. They can’t get moved all the wood they cut.”
Mechanization has actually helped to improve the prospects for loggers, Greene said, by increasing production, making it safer and more lucrative by paying higher wages. Technology has also made logging cool, both literally and figuratively.
Feller bunchers, skidders, delimbers and harvesters now come with amenities like air ride seats, CD players, and climate controlled cabs. They’re insulated and carpeted. Logging, Nimmer said, is finally earning an “appeal factor.” It’s also getting its place on technical school curriculums. Nimmer, who represents Blackshear in the Georgia General Assembly, is working with other timber dealers to launch classes in “Forest Operations” that will allow high school students who are dually enrolled in tech school and post-high school graduates to learn how to make a living – and a life – as loggers.
“A lot of folks look at logging as ‘just a job’ and we try to let people know it’s a career,” Nimmer said. “A job is something you take to get by. Career is something you invest your life into.”
The goal of the forestry operations course is to teach safety, maintenance, budgeting, and business management. The course will encourage more entrepreneurship in the forestry industry, and produce better citizens, Nimmer said. It will also go a long way toward changing the public’s perception of logging.
“Loggers aren’t out there just ravaging the land and destroying Bambi’s home, if you will. We’re creating a new environment where wildlife can grow and flourish,” he said.