Andres Villegas: Georgia’s Working Forestry Industry Benefits both Rural and Metro Georgia

Andres Villegas

Monday, March 19th, 2018

Attracting new corporate headquarters to Georgia draws lots of attention — deservedly so. Announcements of business expansions are similarly celebrated, again as they should be. And the idea of creating manufacturing jobs in America is seemingly today’s holy grail. So why has so little comment been made about the recent announcements of two new production facilities in east Georgia totaling a quarter billion dollars in investment? After all, it is news that benefits both Georgias – metropolitan and the rural parts of our state.

Georgia-Pacific, the Atlanta-based forest products company, announced last week the construction of a $135 million dimensional-lumber mill in Warrenton, west of Augusta. The 340,000-square foot, state-of-the-art plant is scheduled to begin operation in spring 2019. Shortly after the announcement from GP, Canfor, a lumber manufacturer headquartered in Canada, announced that it will begin construction of a $120 million sawmill in Washington, near Athens and Augusta.

These announcements highlight continued investment in Georgia’s forest product industry. GP, which has invested $1.9 billion in capital and acquisitions in Georgia since 2006, employs 7,200 people at 18 locations across the state. Canfor also completed its acquisition of two lumber mills in Moultrie and Thomasville last year and announced a $28 million expansion of its mill in Moultrie. And there’s more.

Interfor, another North American forest product company, acquired seven mills in Georgia since 2013, set up its Southern Regional Headquarters in Peachtree City and has invested nearly $500 million to date in Georgia. Graphic Packaging, a pulp-and-paper company headquartered in Sandy Springs, announced last year that it would invest $136 million in the modernization of its Macon mill, helping retain more than 460 manufacturing jobs. West Fraser, a British Columbia company, bought Georgia softwood lumber mills in Dudley, Blackshear and Fitzgerald from the Gilman Foundation in a $430 million deal in July. And European-based DS Smith purchased 80 percent of Interstate Resources, including its assets in Georgia for $920 million.

What’s happening here?

As Georgia seeks solutions for rural economic development, our state’s forest-products industry is a model that leverages our natural, human, higher education and logistics resources. In fact, Georgia is in a position of privilege as the No. 1 forestry state in the nation. Companies worldwide recognize that powerful combination in a state that has been acknowledged as the best in which to do business. That adds up to attracting investment where Georgia most needs it — benefiting rural Georgia and Metro Atlanta alike.

Georgia’s forest-product industry is grounded in 22 million acres of privately-owned, commercially-available timberland. More than 144,000 Georgians work every day to support the $35.2 billion industry. According to a recent study by the Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute, that includes 11,000 jobs with $983 million in wages and salaries in the 10 counties that surround Metro Atlanta, generating $4.6 billion in total economic output. Georgia leads the nation in privately-owned timberland, volume of timber harvested and the export of pulp and paper, wood fuel and wood pellets. Thanks to advancements in forest management, we’ve increased this production while planting 48 percent more trees than we harvest. (Those trees clean our air and water, too.)

Georgia’s working forestry success story demonstrates that as we pursue rural economic development, we will be well served in focusing in particular on long-term strategy and investment.

Thanks to the innovation and leadership of early forest champions such as Charles Herty, Jim L. Gillis, Sr. and Harley Langdale, Jr., (names that belong in Georgia’s business leader pantheon alongside the likes of Atlanta’s Woodruff and Allen) markets for pine trees were established more than a century ago, and Georgia began to reforest the land that had been largely converted to farmland in the 1800s.

Markets that started with naval stores and turpentine evolved to lumber and other woods products, and today are being revolutionized again at the molecular level addressing construction, energy and consumer product needs thanks to the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, the Renewable Biomaterials Institute at Georgia Tech and the Herty Institute at Georgia Southern.

And our state’s strategic logistical strength and infrastructure in Savannah, Atlanta and beyond provide connectivity from forests to mills and mills to domestic and international markets that is second to none.

Working forestry isn’t an overnight success story. It is the result of a century of innovation, investment, environmental stewardship and hard work. And it is a model of one business benefiting all of Georgia that we should consider as we seek strategic investments to benefit all of Georgia for another century.

Andres Villegas is president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association.