Mississippi to Michigan

Map graphic showing Michigan to Mississippi

I have been fortunate throughout my career to work all across the United States. Beginning in Mississippi, working in the Mississippi/Alabama region, to the western part of the South in the AR/LA/TX (plus OK) region, to the Pacific Northwest, the Carolinas in the Southeast region, and now to the Lake States, it seems I have a strong case of wanderlust.

I have found quite a bit to learn in the new geography. First, it is COLD. Everyone tells me that we had an extremely mild winter here, but for a Mississippi boy, I beg to differ. Heck, I have seen two snows in the last few days, and it is late April. Thus far, the coldest I have experienced was minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit and a wind chill of minus 34 degrees. If this is mild, then I cannot wait for the next winter. But I did find it interesting that I was pretty happy when I got up on a February morning, and the temperature was above zero. Funny how you adapt. And thank you to FRA’s Tim O’Hara, who counseled me on the appropriate gear to deal with the cold.

From a forest products industry perspective, my first observation was the unusual, at least to me, methods by which timber is transported. Everything is about eight feet, no treelength. My initial thought was to ask why, as this cannot be efficient. Another early observation was the lack of clearcuts. There are a few, but most of what I have seen are selective harvest sites, which are performed by cut to length, processor/forwarder operations. I have had very little exposure to these operations over the course of my career.

As I learned more about the overall supply chain, particularly the sawlog markets, it begins to make sense. Some of the forest products have very high returns, especially the high-quality logs. The select harvesting methods appear to be very effective in protecting the residual stand, giving more potential for growing those high-quality products. As we know, environmentally sound silvicultural practices are driven by optimizing returns to the landowner.

Putting it all together, markets drive behavior. Looking back through the supply chain, the sawlog markets drive the silviculture, which drives the need for processor operations to protect the residual stand. These processor operations drive the shorter log lengths, which drives the transportation methods. And it turns out, the transportation methods are quite efficient, especially in the Upper Peninsula where we have favorable weight policies. You can safely move a very high payload with the trucking configurations up here.

Lastly, this region was hit extremely hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. As compared to other regions, we have a disproportionate exposure to the printing and writing sector of the pulp and paper industry. The stay-at-home requirements closed schools and offices, and significantly reduced consumption in a very short period of time. This resulted in significant downtime and even mill closures, putting a great deal of stress throughout the supply chain due to the lack of demand. But I have seen other areas of the US impacted by large swings in demand, and our resilient industry usually rebalances the supply and demand over time. Sadly, there can be negative consequences to good people, but change is constant, and we have to adapt. You never know when the next opportunity will arise.

Reviewed by Tim O’Hara | FRA Vice-President of Government Affairs, & Manager, Lake States Region