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What’s New in the PA Forest Products Industry?

We recently interviewed Matt Gabler, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, a statewide advocacy organization for the forest products industry. Forests cover about 58% of Pennsylvania's land area and support a forest products industry that employs about 64,000 Pennsylvanians and produces over $36 billion in total economic impact. Matt will discuss the importance of Pennsylvania forests and the related forest products industry, along with key issues facing the industry. Follow the link below for the full podcast:

 

Forest products is a very significant industry in Pennsylvania. Tell us more about what the industry looks like in Pennsylvania and PFPA’s role.

It is such an honor to represent Pennsylvania's forest products industry because we are America's largest hardwood producing state. We have a very robust supply chain and a very great team that works across the state to put together this product that is useful in so many aspects of everybody's everyday lives. Our industry has a whole supply chain, starting from the landowners and the loggers and the foresters that begin the supply chain, all the way through the manufacturers that produce products from hardwood flooring to paper to biomass and all across that spectrum. As you mentioned, forest products is an industry that creates about 64,000 jobs, and those jobs are across all 67 counties in the commonwealth. As you mentioned, that adds up to about $36 billion in economic impact to our state.

In my role as Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, it's my job to lead this organization, whose role is to be the predominant statewide advocacy organization at the state level in Pennsylvania. Our mission statement has three main pillars. We advocate to the state and local government entities for favorable policies for the industry. We also work to lead changes in public perception among consumers and the general public. We also work on communicating within the industry to determine what the important aspect and issues of the day are.

Now let’s dive into some of the key issues facing the forest products industry. We’ll start with climate and the environment, and the forest products industry has a great news story to tell. Could you discuss with our listeners why well-managed forests are critical to our environment?

This is something thing that is such a great message that we all can do a better job of explaining. Oftentimes our industry can be very humble, and we go about doing what we do. We recognize the importance of the jobs we create. We recognize the importance and the demand for the product we create. However, there is a great news story about the environment, because if we leave our forests alone, we will essentially leave them to degrade. A mature forest is a dying forest. Mother nature has ways of renewing herself. Lightning will strike. Forest fires will happen. Trees will die. Mortality will happen. And there will be other ways that mother nature will try to do that, but there is a beneficial product to be brought out of the forest. In doing so, we can help mother nature renew herself in a more beneficial way.

By clearing the old, mature forests that have stopped growing, we can make room for new growth, which is better for wildlife habitat. Now, with the focus that we've seen in recent years with carbon in the environment, we have a great news story to tell about how the management of our forests can optimize how our forests clean our air. When you look at an old, mature forest, think about it like a human being. We know that a teenager, an adolescent, is eating a ton because they're growing. By the time we become adults, we are not supposed to be eating nearly as much. You look at that as you look at a mature tree, and it's the same way. Our early successional growth is going to be taking carbon out of the atmosphere and turning it into the wood that is growing in that tree.

Once a tree reaches its mature size, then it is just maintaining itself. It is not taking, or what we call sequestering, carbon from the environment or absorbing nearly as much carbon out of the atmosphere as a growing tree is. If we can take our industry and enable it to go and turn those mature, old trees into products, like furniture, tables, and flooring, then that locks that carbon into those products. Then we clear the room into forest for new trees to grow and take more carbon out of the environment. That is a very beneficial thing that we can do, and we can actually help our forests stay both optimized for wildlife habitat, as well as optimized for forest health and for carbon in the environment.

Now let’s move on to some other issues impacting the forest products industry. Certainly, the industry has seen challenges with labor, trade, and invasive insects, to name a few. Could you share with us about these challenges, and any other issues impacting the industry?

You've definitely hit on some of the big issues that the industry faces. One of the things we're seeing across all industries, of course, is challenges with our work force. We are always looking for more people to build the team to support our industry. We can look at it as a bad news story. "Hey, we don't have enough workers." But I prefer to look at it as a good news story, which is “We're an industry that's hiring.” We're an industry that has opportunity.

As we go out there and try to spread the word about careers, we want people to know that the forest products industry is not just a place where people might go and look for a job that would get them by. This is a place where you can go and look for a career. You can look for a career, whether you want to be toward the beginning of the supply chain or the end. Maybe you want to look at forestry or logging, or you want to look at the manufacturing side. One of the things that I like to share is that there is a resource in Pennsylvania called paforestcareers.com. It's a website that has both information about the jobs that might exist in our industry, as well as an actual job board that posts listings and companies are welcome to post there. We're trying to make sure we get that word out. The great thing about this website is that the more companies are posting their jobs, the more interest we can see among job seekers, and we can try to put the two together.

Paforestcareers.com is a very great website. It is an opportunity that everyone can have to look at either posting jobs if you're looking to hire, or if you're looking as a job seeker, to find your way to join the team in the forest product community in Pennsylvania. That is definitely a very important aspect of what we're doing. As we look at the aging workforce we're seeing, especially in the logging community, there are plenty of opportunities for younger people to get into this and provide for the future and become the future leaders of our industry. You also mentioned invasive insects as a concern for our industry. Everyone's probably heard of the spotted lanternfly, but of course, our concerns don't begin or end there. The spotted lanternfly has been something that has created some challenges for us as it has spread from the southeastern part of the state westward and northward.

We're always trying to make sure to spread the word and tell people to check your vehicles, check your loads, and make sure that we're not spreading this insect or aiding in how it gets out there. But that's just one. We've seen, unfortunately, numerous issues over the past several years. One I'll mention is the emerald ash borer. We've pretty much lost most, if not all, of our ash trees in Pennsylvania because the emerald ash borer has gotten into them and spread and is causing them to die. That's really quite a shame. We're also seeing things like the woolly hemlock adelgid and other insects that have created problems. Unfortunately, with invasive species, we're also seeing issues with invasive plants that are out competing some of our beneficial regrowth. That is a focus that we have when we're working with landowners to try to help get them the resources and the know-how to manage their forests to enable the beneficial regrowth to happen the way we want it to.

Finally, you mentioned trade. Fortunately, I think that has turned into a good news story. In 2017, 2018, and 2019, we saw a trade war develop with China that really caused our export markets to create a real problem for a lot of our producers in Pennsylvania. A good news story that has come out of that has been the fact that our companies in Pennsylvania have found other ways to compete and other countries to do business with. We've been able to drive domestic demand, and we've also been able to come back with some more favorable conditions with China. We've seen the Chinese market has reopened compared to where it was in 2018. Now, we're seeing that maybe we have better opportunities to compete and better marketplace dynamics than we've seen in perhaps a decade or more. We've got some good news there. We've got some challenges to overcome, but overall, we've got an industry that is responding in the way we need it to.

As we conclude, feel free to share any final thoughts with our listeners, along with what excites you the most about the future of PA’s forest products industry.

Before I get into what excites me most, I would like to encourage listeners, I know that listeners on this program might range from forest landowners to other participants in the industry or other folks in the ag community, I would encourage people to have a very attuned ear to developments we're seeing in the carbon marketplace, especially as it relates to landowners. One concern that I have is that some of these markets are going in the direction of incentivizing delayed harvest. I think that there may be certain cases or certain pieces of land where that makes sense, but I think a broad stroke delayed harvest incentive is going to be an obstacle to favorably managing our forests and favorably accessing the resource that will enable us to do all the benefits that I previously outlined.

We're going to continue working, because I think that there is a way to design the carbon marketplace in such a way where it provides land owners with the resources they need to combat invasive species, combat invasive insects, and to do the forest management and the sweat equity that it takes to guarantee a beneficial regrowth. We're going to continue advocating and pushing in that direction.

When I look at what excites me the most is that I see that there is a renewed interest in forest products. There is a wider understanding that forest products are part of Pennsylvania's agricultural community. When I look at the future, I know that we've got generations that are coming into their prime home buying years. The millennials are kind of getting through there and we're seeing Generation Z come behind.

These are folks that are very interested in natural, authentic, healthy solutions. That is exactly the product that we provide. When you look at hardwoods and the premier finishings that we can provide, from cabinetry to hardwood floors and the great products that you can put in your homes, we know that we've got the best quality, healthiest products out there. We're telling that story with the Real American Hardwood Coalition Initiative. When I look at the excitement that is out there, I think that we've got a bright future for our product because the demand is there, and people are recognizing the value of it. We're going to continue telling that story.

 


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