Agri-Pulse: Lawmakers weigh best path forward for wood products industry after pandemic

AGRI-PULSE, NOAH WICKS

Lawmakers searched for solutions to a wide variety of supply chain issues illuminated by the pandemic at a House Agriculture Committee hearing. Wednesday.

“As we turn the corner from the worst of the pandemic, Congress has an important opportunity before us, as we consider options for more resilient and climate smart infrastructure,” said Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger, chair of the conservation and forestry subcommittee. “Our forests — as well as the wood products they support — are critical green infrastructure that help sequester carbon while growing our economy.”

The hearing was held one day after the USDA announced $200 million in pandemic assistance for timber harvesters.

Testifying before the committee, Caroline Dauzat — co-owner of Rex Lumber in Graceville, Fla., and former director of the Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association — said the lumber industry is seeing declines in sawmill infrastructure and availability of both labor and transportation, hindering its ability to keep up with the demands of the market.

According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, seasonally adjusted housing starts increased 37% between March 2020 and March 2021. However, Dauzat noted that in the South, the total number of pine mills operating in the South dropped from 276 to 240 between 2007 and 2019.

At the same time, she cited data from forest2market stating that the number of housing starts grew almost 200% between the fourth quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2021.

“Our country’s not really used to the volatility, but what happened was just extreme demand,” she said.

One possible solution, she said, is eliminating some of the red tape for new mills.

“The process is onerous, it’s expensive, requires a lot of people getting a lot of information. Anything to streamline that process would help get mills started up more quickly.”

In addition, she called on Congress to use the General Services Administration and the Department of Defense to use forestry products in construction, and for more research to go into expanding markets.

According to Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, the U.S. Forest Service granted extensions to over 700 timber contracts at the beginning of the pandemic.

While the agency tried to maintain its timber sale program at roughly 3.2 billion board feet sold, Imbergamo said it still “represents a little more than half of the Allowable Sale Quantity identified in current forest plans.”

Additionally, he pointed out that not all wood products have seen the same demand throughout the pandemic.

“It’s important to note that not every segment of the wood and paper industry has enjoyed strong pricing as we’ve been through the pandemic. The closure of in-person schools and offices has severely depressed demand for printing and writing paper, for instance.”

The American Loggers Council wants to see the passing of the “Safe Routes Act,” which would allow states to make truck weights on interstates equal to local and state road weight limits.

Additionally, the organization would like to see timber harvesting and hauling timber to be considered an agricultural activity, particularly because standing timber is seen as an agricultural commodity.

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