Lowcountry Land Trust has heard from many foresters in the months since the 2023 closure of the WestRock paper mill was announced. In an industry where proximity to a mill is critical to pricing, limited options for moving pulpwood and the downward pressure on stumpage prices create uncertainty that we hope to help you navigate.
Lowcountry Land Trust understands the concerns and questions that arise in such situations and therefore consulted with Ryan Wenzel, principal of Sabine & Waters and chair of the Tricounty Forest Landowners Association, to provide landowners with additional information about the wide-ranging implications of the paper mill closure.
In this blog post, we will explore the challenge foresters currently face, provide valuable insights and solutions to adapt to the changing industry, and highlight available resources to assist landowners during this transitional period.
Understanding the Impact on South Carolina Foresters
The closure of the WestRock paper mill in North Charleston will bring change for forest management and timber landowners in South Carolina, particularly concerning the transportation of pulpwood. With the mill’s annual capacity of 550,000 tons, equivalent to nearly 20,000 truckloads of lumber, it formerly served as an important market for timber products in the region. Landowners now need to work on efficiently and economically moving their pulpwood to alternative mills. Foresters in southern Charleston County and coastal Colleton County have been particularly impacted, as their remaining outlets for pulpwood in Savannah and Georgetown are far away. This predicament results in increased transportation costs, decreased profitability, and a heightened need for strategic planning.
Furthermore, the closure of other mills like Canton in North Carolina and Sunoco’s transition to using only recycled materials has intensified the challenges. These recent changes have removed 11% of South Carolina’s pulp capacity, creating a supply surplus in the market. Consequently, pricing from International Paper (IP) mills has declined, placing additional financial strain on landowners.
Adapting to the Changing Timber Industry
Given the evolving industry landscape, landowners must embrace innovative approaches to preserve the value of their timber resources, according to Wenzel. One crucial strategy is to exercise patience and consider delaying timber sales when feasible. Timber prices fluctuate due to various factors, including mill closures, fuel prices, and weather conditions. Landowners can maximize their returns on timber investments by carefully timing their sales.
Landowners are encouraged to identify and establish connections with buyers near their location. While proximity to mills generally leads to better pricing options, exploring different markets and leveraging relationships within the industry can help landowners navigate the challenges caused by the closure of the WestRock mill. Utilizing the forestry commission’s annual list of buyers or seeking assistance from the Forestry Association can facilitate these connections.
Collaborating with professional foresters is another essential aspect of adapting to the changing industry. These experts possess invaluable knowledge and experience, enabling them to develop comprehensive timber management plans. Landowners can make informed decisions to navigate market dynamics and optimize their timber operations with this information.
Leveraging Available Resources and Funding
In the face of uncertainty resulting from the WestRock paper mill closure, landowners should use available resources to help sustain their operations.
The SC Forestry Commission, Forestry Association of SC, and other organizations have proactively analyzed forest lands in South Carolina and promoted sustainable forestry practices. Landowners can benefit from the expertise and support offered by these organizations to make informed decisions about their timber resources.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has recently been awarded $30 million in federal funds to assist landowners with forest management applications. This funding includes support for reforestation and forest stand improvement, which can be particularly helpful during periods of fluctuating timber prices. Landowners are encouraged to explore these resources to subsidize their management activities and minimize financial burdens.
By leveraging these resources, landowners can enhance their market awareness and identify opportunities to maximize the value of their timber resources.
The closure of the WestRock paper mill in North Charleston has presented new challenges for foresters in the coastal South Carolina region. However, with careful planning and proactive measures, landowners can adapt to the changing industry landscape and navigate the obstacles ahead. Landowners can manage their timber resources by working closely with professional foresters, embracing patience in timber sales, leveraging available local resources and funding, and ensuring long-term sustainability. Landowners’ resilience and ingenuity, combined with industry resources’ support, will ensure that the Lowcountry’s forestry sector continues to thrive.