Felling trees: falling profits

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 26, 2001

Timber prices are falling. The market is shrinking. Mills are closing. Fuel prices are rising.

Loggers are more than a little concerned, said Danny Yates of Natchez, who owns Buckhurst Logging with his wife, Jan.

&uot;This problem is not just Natchez. It’s all over,&uot; said Yates, sitting in his office on Lower Woodville Road.

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His phone rang. People came in and out. The busy company had an air of enterprise about it.

One knock on the door was from an independent trucking contractor. &uot;Oh, I’m really glad to see him,&uot; Yates said. &uot;Do you know how hard it is to find people like him to do work for you?&uot;

The complexity of logging has grown during the 12 years Yates has been in the business, having inherited it with his wife from his late father-in-law.

&uot;I feel I’m just a child in the business compared to the men and women who have been in it for years,&uot; he said. &uot;But I have learned something about it and I work hard to make it profitable.&uot;

Loggers easily divide into two types, those who deal in pine and those who deal in hardwoods. For the most part, Yates is a hardwood logger, but he does work in pine, as well.

Regardless of the type of logging, costs have overtaken profitability in many logging companies, and the future does not look promising.

&uot;We have to watch everything we do. Everything costs us so much. Insurance is astronomically high, and fuel is high,&uot; he said.

&uot;If I decided to get out of the business tomorrow, I’d be solvent. But so many of us have debt greater than what we’re worth.&uot;

How has this happened?

&uot;It is not a logger’s market,&uot; he said. &uot;The world economy has affected logging. If the big mills were making money, they would want you to cut as many logs as you could get.&uot;

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Big companies such as Georgia Pacific and International Paper are closing mills. Demand for domestic paper products has decreased.

And the market is flooded with forest products from around the world with which a Southwest Mississippi logger cannot compete.

Canada has made news recently as one of those competing markets. An agreement expired last year with the United States – and was not renewed by Congress – that allows Canadian products to come tariff-free across the border.

&uot;Those companies are subsidized by the Canadian government, and it is not really competition. We can’t compete with those subsidized companies.&uot;

Dr. Bill Stuart, professor at Mississippi State University in Starkville and consultant in business management in the logging industry, said the industry is in jeopardy.

&uot;They are wondering how to survive tomorrow. The future is something way down the road,&uot; said Stuart. &uot;The whole forest products industry is in turmoil.&uot;

The strong dollar is an enemy of the logger. The exchange rate works against domestic products. &uot;Our products simply aren’t moving as well among the traditional customers.&uot;

Paper is being produced around the world, in places such as Indonesia, Stuart said.

Competition is more than keen for domestic companies vying for business with Asian Pacific Resources and others, for example. &uot;Brazil is coming on strong as a paper and pulp producer, too.&uot;

With the worldwide competition and rising costs of doing business, Yates said, loggers are battered from all sides. &uot;Our expenses have skyrocketed, as obvious as bulk fuel costs rising from about 70 cents a gallon to as high as $1.20 a gallon,&uot; he said.

&uot;Even if you don’t take out a loan to buy new equipment, you have to buy parts and have repairs made, and that is very expensive.&uot; Most companies shell out thousands of dollars on loans every month, he said.

His company and all the problems facing loggers are on his mind night and day, Yates said.

&uot;I’ll guarantee every logging contractor is thinking the same thing I am, whether to stay in it or not.&uot;

Yates said people in the Natchez area and Southwest Mississippi must realize that loss of logging work will severely affect the local economy, where he estimates at least 2,000 people are employed in logging within a 50-mile radius.

&uot;And the so-called trickle-down effect will be huge if we lose logging,&uot; he said.