Heavy rains bog down timber industry

Published 11:00 pm Friday, July 26, 2013

Special to The Messenger

Frequent, heavy rain has bogged down portions of Alabama’s $21 billion-dollar timber industry.

Lynn Johnson, owner of Johnson Brothers Logging in Brantley, said this is the wettest summer in his 35-year career. He and a nine-member crew should have finished logging a 115-acre tract of timber in north Pike County a week or two ago, he said. But with rain nearly every day, the crew is running behind.

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“We moved on this tract the last of June, and it had already rained a little bit,” Johnson said. “From July 3 until today (July 25) we’ve only had two days without rain.”

The slippery conditions present problems for loggers. Spinning tires can’t grip mud, and that makes equipment use more fuel, Johnson said. Trucks loaded with logs must park near a road. Wood that is normally harvested a few feet from the truck has to be towed several hundred feet in some cases, requiring additional time and fuel.

“We probably use 20-25 percent more fuel in a situation like this,” Johnson said, who typically uses 150-200 gallons of off-road diesel fuel each day. “Our profit margin is thin to begin with, so when you add in rain, especially for such a long period of time, it gets in your wallet pretty hard.”

Pike County Farmers Federation Board Member John Deloney is a buyer for Posey Kilcrease Inc., a timber buying and logging company in Brantley He said wet conditions have sent buyers like him scrambling to keep mills supplied with wood.

“This time of year we would normally be logging hardwood logs from swamps or low lying areas,” Deloney said. “But with all this rain, that’s out of the question. We’re just trying to keep our loggers in a place they can get the wood out. The logging business is production based, and if they’re not moving timber, they’re not making money.”

Deloney said the effects of the slowdown could be felt in many rural Alabama communities.

“A lot of workers in the logging business are paid by the day, and if they’re not working, they’re not earning money,” he said. “It can be especially hard for some of the smaller hardwood mills. If a mill doesn’t have enough wood brought to it, then the workers may have to go home. Some mills are out of wood and have sent their workers home until things dry out.”

Johnson said he and other loggers take precautions to protect the environment, especially in muddy conditions.

“If the ground is so wet that our equipment causes ruts, then we have to move to another location or stop altogether,” he said. “Ruts cause erosion, and we won’t do that.”

Alabama Forestry Association spokesman Sam Duvall said some areas of the state experienced more rain than others, and in some cases loggers can’t drive to a worksite because roads won’t support their equipment.

“Most professional loggers aren’t going to go in if they know it’s going to tear the roads up,” Duvall said. “They’re going to wait as long as they can. But they can’t wait forever — they have to make a living.”

Alabama Farmers Federation Forestry Division Director Rick Oates said professional loggers are committed to protecting the state’s land and water while providing wood to keep mills running.

“Sometimes, this means moving loggers to different tracts of land at a moment’s notice, delaying harvest until dryer times, or staying out of the woods,” Oates said. “With training in best management practices and the sustainable forestry initiative, loggers know what to do and how to do it when faced with tough weather conditions.”