All Posts March 24, 2020

AL.com
By William Thornton | wthornton@al.com,
Posted Mar 24, 2020,

Shoppers scouring shelves nationwide for toilet paper, paper towels and sanitizing wipes means demand for Alabama timber is strong.

But the long-term economy is what’s on the mind of at least one member of the state’s timber industry.

Foothills Timber Co., based in Heflin, harvests about 260,000 tons of Alabama timber each year from private owners in a 50-mile radius around Cleburne County. Winston Bryant, 56, is the president of the company and has been in the business since 1982.

He says the company’s three employees and 15 subcontractors cut about 5,000 tons a week, with about 60 percent of that going to the pulp wood market for making paper products. That means trees below 20 years of age, based on size. And that market is going well.

Alabama has approximately 23 million acres of timberland, the third most timberland acreage in the 48 contiguous states. About 93 percent is privately owned. And Alabama is second in the nation in pulp production and paper and paperboard production. That’s about $16.3 billion in product shipments annually, according to the Forest Product Development Center.

But with large sectors of the economy shutdown due to the pandemic sheltering procedures, like others, Bryant said he’s worried about the future, which looks lean.

“This is kind of scary,” he said. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen. Our markets and all are still O.K. right now. We haven’t seen much of a slowdown.”

What sticks in Bryant’s memory is the recession that followed the market collapse in 2008. That keyed a collapse in the housing market and a drastic reduction in home construction. About 40 percent of Foothills Timber’s output is saw timber used in construction.

The pandemic is affecting timber markets globally, both good and bad – from the demand for paper products to diminished demand for pallets in the shipping business and the potentially crushing fall in housing starts.

Right now, prices range from $6 to $8 per ton for pine pulpwood and up to $32 per ton for hardwood saw timber.

“It took close to 10 years for our markets to recover from (the recession), and in some ways, we still haven’t,” Bryant said. “We were still moving the same amount of tons, but the value went down about 30 percent or so. Prices are still not what they were on our end, but there were other factors involved with that.”

Bryant said for now, Foothills will shift to tracts with a high percentage of pulp wood, given the current demand. And wait.

“We haven’t seen a slowdown in house building, but I feel like that’s going to crash pretty soon, based on what I’m hearing,” he said. “We’re not wanting to venture out and tie up a bunch of inventory.”