Ready and Willing

Mississippi’s floundering timber industry says it needs bioenergy projects.
By Anna Austin | May 23, 2011

While not currently a popular place for biomass power, there is an ongoing push in Mississippi to get officials and project developers to realize the positive economic impact bioenergy development could have on the state, as well as what the opportunities are.

In particular, the difference new projects could make for the struggling timber/logging industry and the over-abundant wood resources available to developers. To paint a picture of what has happened in the sector during the past five years, Mississippi-based Timber Plus owner Van Hendry says in 2007, the company had 120 people on its payroll, two wood yards, six logging operations and made roughly $14 million in sales.

Today, the company has nine employees, no operating wood yards, two logging operations, and Hendry anticipates just a few million dollars in sales. “We’ve been hit pretty hard by the recession, but we’re probably one of the more fortunate ones, compared to some of the other (timber) guys around here who’ve gone belly up and called it quits,” he says.

 Even though timber demand has dramatically decreased in the past few years, Hendry points out that the supply hasn’t changed a bit. In fact, there is about 41 million tons of excess timber each year, and that number is rising. Hendry, along with several other groups including the Mississippi Forestry Commission, the Mississippi Institute of Forest Inventory and the Mississippi Logging Association, have been putting together data on why timber prices in Mississippi have been so low, what the losses have been by county, and what the possibilities are for a biomass energy industry.

“We already knew the answers, but we needed supporting documentation,” Hendry says. Some of the findings so far show that 120 mills have been lost since 1996 with only 117 remaining, overall global fiber pricing increased last year by roughly 17 percent while Southeast U.S. pricing was down 10 percent—27 percent in Mississippi—and the state’s logging force has been reduced from about 2,700 crews to about 700 statewide. “In the last week, I know of five mills that have shut down,” Hendry says.

Some underlying factors in what might hinder the development of new industries that would utilize wood, such as biopower, include guarded wood baskets and the Forestry Fairness Act, which was implemented in the state many years ago and designed to protect the sawmill industry. “When you peel the layers back, at the core of it, the act prohibits Mississippi from offering any state incentives to get a new industry to come in,” Hendry says. Attempts by industry groups that have banded together to get the act repealed have not been successful yet, he says, but is still a work in progress.

 In the meantime, they are working to get the attention of biomass project developers. “We’ve got a lot of resources here in Mississippi and we want people to come here for projects,” Hendry adds. “We have a heck of a lot of supply but we don’t have the demand. With rising energy costs, there is a lot of potential for somebody to come in.”

—Anna Austin