Coastal Georgia's timber operations in 'great position' to benefit from timber industry upswing, says forest business director at University of Georgia, notes US$12M upgrade at Port of Brunswick offers facility to ship lumber, woodchips to offshore market

BRUNSWICK, Georgia , September 9, 2013 () – Forests are just a fraction of the more than 750,000 acres of timberland Plum Creek Timber Co. owns in Georgia.

"There is a lot of planning and a lot of science that goes into this," said Harvey, a forester and resource supervisor for the Seattle-based company's Brunswick district.

As one of eight people who monitor the 1,172 square miles of pine forests Plum Creek owns in Coastal Georgia -- nearly 94 square miles of it in Glynn County -- Harvey handles everything from keeping the forests healthy to keeping customers informed about their timber orders.

Customer relations is something at which Harvey has become adept recently, as more and more buyers call not just Plum Creek for timber, but the industry as a whole.

"It's been pretty steady," Harvey said as he turned his truck onto a service road in the Paulk's Pasture Wildlife Management Area near Sterling, an area open to hunters.

The steady action he has seen lately is a welcomed change for an industry that suffered some of the crippling effects of the Great Recession. Prior to 2008, the booming housing market was responsible for record growth in the Southern timber business, as new construction kept sawmills buzzing to meet the demand for lumber.

It was no surprise that as new home construction all but halted during the recession, the lumber side of the timber industry dipped, as well.

With indications that new home construction is picking up nationwide, Harvey says investments in the industry indicate the lull could be ending quickly. Forest product companies are beginning to invest as much as $400,000 to reopen a previously shuttered sawmill and are spending to build new ones, Harvey noted.

"So, you've got some very large companies placing bets on a recovery," he said.

Plum Creek is one of them.

More than 4.5 million pine trees are planted by hand every year in the company's Coastal Georgia region and nearly 60 million are planted annually for the company across the nation.

The company is always in the market to buy land, especially in a place such as Southeast Georgia, where national and international demand for forest products such as lumber, pulp and wood pellets points to a bright future. The area is ideal for growing the loblolly pine trees that drive much of the industry, Harvey said.

"We are in it to grow pine trees in the right place," he said. "Southeast Georgia is a great place to have our timberland."

But the prime location is based on more than a favorable climate. With plenty of sawmills, pulp mills and shipping access in the area, Coastal Georgia, and Glynn County in particular, is in a great position to benefit from an upswing in the national timber industry, according to Bob Izlar, director of the Center of Forest Business at the University of Georgia.

Additionally, Canada lost a large percentage of its pine timber to beetles in recent years, making Southern pine timber more in demand if construction growth continues.

"Everything is trending positively," Izlar said. "Things are lining up well for the Southern timber industry."

As demand for lumber increases and demand for commodity products using pulp and fluff pulp, the type of pulp produced at Georgia-Pacific's Glynn County facility, remains high, demand for wood pellets used for energy overseas should rise, as well, Izlar said.

That is where renovations to the Port of Brunswick's East River Terminal factor in.

"Brunswick is well-positioned to start taking advantage of some of those exports," Izlar said. "If Brunswick can ship pellets, it can easily ship wood chips, as well."

Even some lumber could start leaving the port to places such as China, where entire cities seem to pop up overnight, he said.

Nearly $12 million in improvements under way at Marine Port Terminal will position Glynn County for what is expected to be a large increase in wood pellet exports to Europe, where pellets are burned for energy, according to Jamie McCurry, senior director of administration for the Georgia Ports Authority.

"You're going to find Brunswick is really ideally placed as an epicenter for the region," McCurry said.

Officials with Logistec, the company that leases and operates the Marine Port Terminal from the authority, has said the improvements include docks deepened to 36 feet from 30 feet, allowing ships to be loaded with up to 25 tons, 10 tons more than at the shallower depth.

The improvements also will allow faster loading, increasing the hourly loading rate to 600 tons from 200 tons. The facility currently handles about 300,000 tons of bulk cargo annually, a total that is expected to increase to more than 1 million tons after the project is completed.

The increased capacity and efficiency, paired with easy access to rail and highway systems, will mean the Marine Port Terminal has great potential for growth, which could mean more jobs.

"Not only does (growth) require more jobs at the port, but also in the rural areas, where the timber is grown," McCurry said.

The timber industry has been a jobs-producer in Glynn County for years, and in other areas, according to Dave Smith, interim director of the Brunswick and Glynn County Development Authority.

With the Georgia-Pacific Cellulose plant, Pinova, which manufactures rosins from tree stumps, and jobs directly related to forestry and timber, Smith says the business is vital.

"It has served the community well, and will continue to do so for years to come," he said.

The best part about timber here is that it grows quickly and is a renewable resource, he added.

"We are in an ocean of a fast-growing resource in the pine trees," Smith said. "They are what is referred to as a fully renewable resource."

Railroads and highways are integral to moving forest products from the area to the rest of the nation, but getting that renewable resource to the world will require maintaining the Brunswick harbor's channel depth at 36 feet, so ships can come and go regularly, Smith said.

The harbor's depth has become an issue the past several years as tropical storms and a lack of federal funding for maintenance have allowed silting to build to levels that have hindered shipping traffic.

The cost of dredging has been quoted at about $7 million, less than the amount of federal harbor tax revenue produced by the Port of Brunswick that is supposed to be used for harbor maintenance, Smith said. The Army Corps of Engineers has only been receiving about half of the necessary funding to maintain what are classified as "moderate traffic" ports, such as Brunswick.

Full-funding will be key to ensuring more forest products can be handled here, alongside the already robust shipments of vehicles through the Colonel's Island Terminal.

"The port is already a significant economic engine, even without the expected growth in forest products," Smith said.

With large ships now often having to wait at sea to enter the harbor until the tide is right, Smith says dredging to the proper 36-foot depth is a dire need.

"It has reached a critical stage," Smith said.

He says he hopes the Restoring America's Maritime Promise Act, introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Jack Kingston, R-1, will pass and require tax revenue in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to be used where it was collected.

-- Reporter Michael Hall writes about public safety, environment and other local topics. Contact him at mhall@the brunswicknews.com, on Facebook or at 265-8320, ext. 320.

Data bank

Georgia is one of the largest producers of timber and forest products in the world. Some statistics from 2011 from the Georgia Forestry Commission's statewide economic impact study on the forestry and timber industry:

-- Jobs: The forest industry supported 1,040 jobs in 2011 in Glynn County and 118,459 jobs statewide.

-- Products: Georgia's pulp and paper industry dominates all sectors in the industry. Georgia's 12 pulp mills represented 69 percent of total revenue, 41 percent of employment and 55 percent of compensation.

-- Area: Glynn County has 148,000 acres of forest land, 44 percent of which is planted pine forest for timber. Statewide, there is more than 22 million acres of forestland.

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