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Conference attendees gather in the vendor area

Biennial conference tackles economy, environmental topics

After a few pandemic-related schedule changes, the 2023 Timberland Investment Conference returned to its spring timeslot for two days of networking and discussions.


This year’s event, which took place at The Ritz-Carlton on Florida’s Amelia Island, included national and state-specific economic updates, a deep dive into the current state of timberland investing—along with some growth areas—and insights into environmental governance and carbon markets. The conference was also an opportunity for graduate students in the University of Georgia’s Harley Langdale Jr. Center for Forest Business to network with professionals in their field and make valuable connections.


Housed within the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, the Harley Langdale Jr. Center for Forest Business has hosted the conference since 2004. At the time, Warnell forest business professor Mike Clutter launched the event to bring professionals together and learn more about the industry. 


The conference has evolved over the decades into the top destination for professionals interested in forest investment trends and connecting with investors and industry experts from around the globe. This year’s event was no different.


Among the highlights, attendees learned about the state of the economy, both on a national and on a statewide scale, from Laura Ullrich, senior regional economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and Jeffrey Dorfman, state economist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Now three years out from the chilling economic effects of COVID-19, the charts illustrated the stark depths to which some areas of the economy, such as the service industry, suffered. But more recent numbers look more positive, even putting much of the economy back on track to match projections from several years ago. 


Housing was one point of contention, and some sessions touched on issues related to lumber and new construction. Dorfman noted, for example, that permits for new single-family homes now equal 2007’s numbers; new construction fell precipitously during the Great Recession and has been slowly climbing back. But still, more housing—and smaller, lower-priced homes—are needed to meet demand. 


Another session touched on mass timber and the opportunities it provides for new development—if mills can be built to supply builders with these engineered wood beams. Growth in mass timber buildings has doubled in the past two years, but with only one mill in the Southeast equipped to produce the products, it’s difficult to put Southeastern wood to use in these projects, said Troy Harris, managing director of Jamestown. 


The company is building a mass-timber office building next to its other property, Ponce City Market, in Atlanta. Harris explained the process for sourcing timber, manufacturing it into engineered beams and delivering it to the site,


“Most timber for mass timber construction is currently sourced from British Columbia, Canada, Austria or Germany,” said Harris. But, he added, it seemed ridiculous to import lumber from Europe when the project was located in Georgia. “Jamestown is using regional timber and vendors for the construction of its project in Atlanta, reducing the transportation required to move timber through the manufacturing process by thousands of miles.”


If more mills in the United States processed mass timber products, noted Harris, they could help meet the growing demand for commercial timber construction. It also underscored the environmentally friendly aspects of mass timber as a carbon-neutral alternative to traditional construction methods and tied to another session that day: ESG, or environmental, social and corporate governance as part of an overall investment strategy. 


Moderated by Tom Brown, a real estate, hospitality and commercial construction sector leader with EY, the session tackled a topic that recently landed in the news because of its politics—or, lack of it.


In reality, said Quinhai Xia, one of the panelists, ESG investing has nothing to do with politics, Rather, it offers additional opportunities for investors and builds in additional benefits, such as sustainability or community impact. Xia is principal at GreenQuest.


“The timberland investment industry has embraced ESG values for the last 20-plus years,” said Xia, who was joined by Charlotte Kaiser, head of impact finance for BTG Pactual, and Jennifer Leitsch, the managing director of climate and sustainability services for EY. “Today we have new ESG aspects to consider when optimizing the land portfolio, such as carbon credits and biodiversity credits.”


The conference wrapped up with an Orbis Campfire Session focused on the timberland labor market. Moderated by Kim Kean, director of marketing for Orbis, the panel included a range of experts with insights on current and future trends: Bob Izlar, the recently retired founding director of the Harley Langdale Jr. Center for Forest Business; Jeffrey Siegrist, managing partner for recruiter Jeffrey M. Siegrist and Company; Nick DiLuzio, vice president of the Georgia Forestry Association; and Kunal Sinha, who will graduate this spring with his Master of Forest Resources from Warnell.


Technology and changes in the industry have affected recruitment into the forest industry, yet the demand for workers continues to grow. Looking to the future, panelists discussed ways to keep that pipeline flowing, whether it’s enticing high school students with a video gaming background to try their hand at moving trees, or considering a slate of benefits for new graduates entering the industry.


There are a lot of options for the future of forestry, the panel agreed. But it’s also important to be responsive to the needs of the workforce. For example, said Sinha, company-sponsored student loan forgiveness programs offer tax benefits and also help the current generation of recent college graduates—yet only 8% of companies offer this benefit.


“Financial incentives. The cost of everything has gone up, and the wages of yesterday don’t hold up today. You have to be transparent about salaries,” he said. Pool tables and pizza parties aren’t going to attract tomorrow’s workforce. Rather, “we have to prioritize health care, remote work options, paid time off, maternity leave, paternity leave, retirement support, diversity—these are things that matter to people, and we can be on that cutting edge.”


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