Logging industry is seeing signs of recovery for first time in years
by David Atchison
Home Staff Writer
TALLADEGA COUNTY – Billy Ray Camp, 73, has seen it all working in the logging industry for almost a half-century.

“It’s been good to us, but it hasn’t always been easy,” Camp said.

Camp said the family logging business is now run by his 38-year-old son, Ray. But the elder Camp can load a logging truck about as well as anyone else, and he certainly hasn’t retired from the logging business.

Camp leaves home when it’s still dark and returns way after the sun goes down.

He said you have to work long days, if you’re going to make it in the logging business.

It’s all about volume.

“The price they pay us now is not much greater than it was 30 years ago,” Camp said. “If you can’t move volume, you can’t make it.”

Camp’s family operation is considered a large logging operation. The Camps have some of the best, most advanced equipment to cut timber, and cut it fast.

Within the blink of an eye, a modern-day tract cutter can cut down a tree, sometimes two and three trees at a time, within seconds, not minutes or hours.

The family operation has two skidders to carry the timber out of the woods to a loading area where the timber is piled. A knuckle boom loader operator loads the wood into one of four large flatbed trucks and drivers carry the timber to its final destination, a pulpwood factory or sawmill.

On an average day, the crew will cut and load about 600,000 pounds of timber.

At the work site, the Camps also have a dozer to cut roads into where the timber stands, two tractor trailers and two additional tractor trailers that are contracted out.

The crew also has a service truck on site, which is really more of a tool truck.

“You have to carry everything into the woods,” Camp said. “You can’t run back and forth to the house.”

Camp said he grew up around the lumber industry. He said his father and brother both operated saw mills.

“We were a saw mill family,” he said.

In 1969, Camp saw that there was money to be made in the logging industry, and he struck out on his on.

He managed to get a $30,000 loan that he used to buy a new skidder, loader, three chainsaws and a logging truck.

“We don’t use chainsaws much anymore,” Camp said. “Everything is mostly automatic.”

But the cost of equipment and maintaining it is much more than it was 40 years ago.

“The service truck we have now costs more than $40,000,” Camp said. “And when I first started, off-road diesel fuel was 10-cents a gallon. It’s $4.15 a gallon now.”

And the big massive high-tech logging equipment the Camps transport to a work site cost more than $1 million all together. That’s a big part of the logging industry that has changed.

Advances in logging equipment have made logging more efficient and safer, but also more costly for logging operations.

“If we didn’t have this kind of equipment, I’m not sure if you could get anybody to work for you now,” Camp said, referring to a time trees were cut individually by loggers with chainsaws.

“Now we can cut about 40 acres in a week,” Camp said.

To make any money, Camp said the crew has to cut at least a 40-acre tract of timber. Generally, the tracts of timber the Camps cut average about 150-250 acres.

“It almost costs you a day’s work to move everything in,” Camp said.

He said without a doubt, the new logging equipment has made logging much safer.

“We have radios and everyone can talk back and forth to each other,” he said.

Camp said equipment operators are in a protective cab and are not exposed to natural outside elements or fallen trees and limbs.

Camp said hard economic times have sent many loggers home for good, and he said sawmills have dwindled in the southeast because of the downturn in the home building industry.

Just a streak of bad luck or turn of events can devastate a logging operation, forcing closure.

“If the economy turns around and the mills open back up, there’s not going to be enough loggers to meet the demand for saw wood,” Camp predicted.

Chris Isaacson, vice-president for the Alabama Forestry Association in Montgomery, said that is one concern for the state association.

“There is a growing concern that as the market rebounds, there may be difficulty to expand (logging) operations to meet that growing demand (for logs),” Isaacson said.

He said the housing building boom peaked in 2005-2006, but the market has since declined steadily in solid wood production.

“The demand for round wood has fallen since 2005, a big part of that is saw timber,” Isaacson said.

He said there is about a 40 percent reduction in logging production since 2005.

“Pulpwood is relatively good, strong, but it took a dip in 2008,” he said.

He is uncertain how many loggers have hung up their saws in Alabama because of the downturn in the home building industry.

“It’s been a very difficult time for loggers in the past 4-5 years,” Isaacson said.

He said while demand for logs have decreased, expenses for loggers have escalated – costs like fuel, insurance and equipment.

“Production is down, so it’s put the squeeze on loggers,” Isaacson said. “That’s the bad news.”

He said loggers have had to make adjustments to survive.

“They (loggers) have been in a very challenging position,” Isaacson said. “The good news is that we are beginning to see signs of recovery.”

He said the pulp and paper market has stabilized.

“We’re seeing signs of improved markets for solid wood products,” Isaacson said. “There is growing hope out there, but it’s going to take time for many of the loggers to get back on solid footing.”

He said future financing for loggers could choke recovery for the timber industry.

Isaacson said loggers have delayed replacing aging equipment because of hard economic times so when solid wood production increases, new equipment is necessary to help meet production demands.

“You get to a point where you’re working on stuff instead of with it,” Camp said. “You don’t just pull $400,000 out of your pocket and buy a piece of equipment, but you get to a point you are better off paying on new equipment.”

Isaacson said some loggers are going to have a hard time finding financing for new equipment.

“Financing for logging equipment is going to be a bottleneck,” Isaacson said. “Financing is already a bottleneck.”

He said another concern for the Alabama Forestry Association is that federal, state and even local legislation could hamper recovery for loggers.

“One of our biggest concerns is regulations that are coming down from the federal, state and local levels that have the potential to put more of a burden and increase costs on logging operations,” Isaacson said. “That’s one thing we’re doing at the Alabama Forestry Association. We’re trying to address and prevent any damaging regulations.”

Isaacson said he was cautiously optimistic about the recovery for the logging industry in Alabama.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to get back to 2005, but I predict the markets will improve significantly in the coming years,” Isaacson said.
© 2012