The green in Georgia’s forests

Clean air. Clean Water. Good jobs. Revenue to support education. Our challenge is balancing these pressing issues to sustain economic growth and quality of life. An often overlooked piece of this sustainability equation in Georgia is 22 million acres of commercial timberland owned by tens of thousands of private landowners.

Ninety-two percent of Georgia’s forests, covering two-thirds of the state, are privately owned. That land generates thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of revenue supporting government services. Georgia’s working forests also clean and cool our rivers and streams, consume and store carbon, provide habitat for a great diversity of wildlife, and surround us with scenic beauty.

Now, thanks to a just-finished University of Georgia study, we know that the value of these ecosystem services provided by privately owned forestland is more than $37.6 billion a year.

In these economic times, with limited public funds for forestland conservation, the role of private forest landowners is more important than ever. We want landowners to keep their land in forest production, providing ecosystem services to benefit Georgians and maintaining the state’s competitiveness in domestic and global forest product markets. But private woodlands — and with them our capacity to safeguard precious resources such as clean water — are shrinking.

Georgia’s working forests have not been here forever, and they don’t take care of themselves. Georgia’s private forest landowners must have economic incentive to grow, harvest and sell trees if they are going to continue to actively manage this renewable resource. Those landowners and the state’s forest industries face pressure today from growing global competition, local property taxes not reflective of the actual use of the land, and encroaching urban and suburban development. We need public policy that keeps the working forest working for us all, shaped by respect for private property rights, reasonable environmental protection requirements, and — most importantly — realistic tax policy.

For more than a century, Georgia’s most plentiful, renewable, natural resource — trees — has been turned into jobs and tax dollars. For generations the forestry industry has sustainably managed Georgia’s forestlands to produce turpentine, lumber, poles, posts, panels — and today an array of more than 5,000 forest products. The state’s forest-related businesses employ 118,423 Georgians in its second-largest industry. These manufacturing, technical and research jobs are among Georgia’s most sophisticated and highly compensated. The top two export commodities from Georgia’s ports in Savannah and Brunswick are wood pulp and paper/paperboard. Today, Georgia’s forest product manufacturers annually inject $27.2 billion into the state’s economy.

There is more on the horizon: Georgia is a leader in the emerging bio-energy industry, ranking first in the nation in announced biomass energy projects. Bio-energy projects alone have the potential to create thousands of additional jobs within new facilities and forestry operations to support them within the next 10 years.

Choices are being made today that will impact the amount of land that remains in forest cover. Without respect for private property rights, reasonable environmental protection requirements and realistic tax policy, Georgia will not continue to benefit from the clean air, clean water, jobs and recreation the forests provide.

Rex Boner is vice president of and the Southeast representative for The Conservation Fund. Wesley Langdale is the president of the Langdale Company in Valdosta and the Chairman of the Board of the Georgia Forestry Commission.