My overarching goal as president for the past two years and as a board member for the past two decades has been to make Florida forestry more relevant, and therefore more likely to succeed. The path to relevancy, I learned, is a painstaking journey that requires a multifaceted approach.
Forestry has a great story to tell. However, we don’t have a lot of people trained to tell it. Frankly, as natural resource professionals, communications is not a “go-to” skill for many of us. We don’t have the background or, in some cases, the desire. Given the choice between putting on our boots and hitting the woods or putting on a suit and participating in a public forum, I think it would be a fair bet that a high percentage of those in the forest industry would head for the trees every time. The Association is constantly exploring innovative ways to share the forestry story effectively and to help our members do the same.
Legislators, policymakers and regulators are prime targets as audiences for our story. The Association advocates for a business-friendly climate that not only protects the rights of landowners and loggers to grow, harvest, and haul forest resources but also strengthens the ability of new and existing mills to prosper. In our quest, we have traveled to Washington, D.C., Tallahassee, water management districts, local governments and elected leaders’ district offices. Issues of engagement include federal tax reform, the farm bill, Greenbelt, sales tax exemptions, funding for the Florida Forest Service (FFS) and UF/IFAS, transportation issues, reforestation programs and much, much more.
Because it is so very important that the people who make laws and set policy understand the workings and the importance of the forest industry, we have taken great strides in heightening our political profile as well. It is imperative that we support and elect like-minded people who understand our issues and who have a proven record of standing up for our interests.
For example, we are proud to be the first agricultural group to officially endorse Commissioner Adam Putnam for governor. We jumped at the chance to help elect a fiscally conservative, forest-friendly governor – particularly one who knows our industry, issues and challenges to the degree the commissioner does.
Our regional political action groups were created with this goal in mind. They have actively engaged in the governor’s race and on behalf of strong candidates in other races in their respective areas. Their continuing efforts have been noted and will undoubtedly yield positive results in the coming years.
The voice of Florida forestry has also been made stronger by our partnerships with a diverse collection of groups. Together, we increase our volume, broaden our message and grow our audience.
The Working Forest Partners serve as a perfect illustration. This diverse statewide coalition includes representatives from all aspects of the forest industry, environmental advocacy groups and governmental agencies who share an appreciation of Florida’s working forests and their significant benefits. While members don’t walk in lockstep on all issues, we focus on our shared belief that working forests are the least intensive and most environmentally beneficial land use in Florida and move forward from there. Working forests help our partners achieve their goals, and our partners help us share the forestry story outside of our traditional audiences.
We also partner with others to move the forestry story forward. In our efforts to push for research that quantifies and qualifies the environmental and financial benefits to society from our forest management activities, we have pulled another varied group into the conversation: the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation (UFSFRC), the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, Tall Timbers Research Station, the Suwannee River Water Management District, and the US Department of Commerce, among others. Our goal is to obtain payment for landowners for these ecosystem services. For that to happen, we need support from nontraditional sources and a better understanding of forestry in regulatory and political arenas.
In 2017, we partnered with UF/IFAS to produce an industry economic impact study. Knowledge, as they say is power, and we wanted to know the breadth and depth of forestry’s impact in Florida. The study revealed that the industry, with its $25 billion economic impact and 124,000 jobs, has experienced significant growth in both size and diversity since the previous study, which was performed in 2003,
In the past 15 years, forestry has become the state’s largest agricultural commodity. Our ancillary manufacturing businesses comprise a larger slice of the economic pie than realized, and their footprints fall in more urbanized areas than expected. As it turns out, forestry’s economic impact isn’t confined to the back roads of rural North Florida; it can also be experienced to surprisingly large degrees in areas like Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Polk Counties.
By learning that, we found more potential supporters who have good reason to sing backup as we share our story but who haven’t previously been included in our choir.
The list of collaborative efforts goes on: ProForest – Proactive Forest Health and Resilience – whose mission is to proactively protect forest ecosystems and their services by fostering forest resilience and managing emerging threats. The Floridan Aquifer Collaborative Engagement for Sustainability Project (FACETS), whose goal is to ensure economic sustainability of agriculture and silviculture in North Florida and South Georgia while protecting water quantity, quality, and habitat. Working Forests Week, a statewide awareness campaign whose roster of activities expands every year.
We also have several partners in the educational arena, helping to train the next generation: Project Learning Tree, the Timber Harvesting Equipment Program at the University of Central Florida’s Chiefland campus, 4-H, FFA, the Florida Forests Teachers’ Tour and Florida Agriculture in the Classroom (FAITC). In fact, forestry will be the subject of the book read in schools across the state for FAITC’s 2019 Ag Literacy Day.
An educational partner that I feel compelled to highlight is UFSFRC. Under the direction of first Wayne Smith and Tim White and now Red Baker, UFSFRC has proven to be a stalwart fixture in the forest community. Their teaching, research and outreach efforts continue to make a difference in our industry. We are currently working with them on a survey to discover new and improved ways to meet the research and extension needs of the association and the industry.
Please bear in mind that this is not an all-inclusive list, just a snapshot of recent work. We value all of our partnerships. In every collaboration we undertake, the emphasis is the same. We want to magnify forestry’s relevance in Florida.
I am not only proud of the accomplishments we have achieved and the partnerships we have created, I am also proud of the people we have celebrated. Not one but two of our highly respected members have been in inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame: William Cook in 2017 and Harold Mikell in 2018. Their contributions will have impacts for generations to come, and their examples should inspire us all to be better representatives of our industry. As such, we plan to continue nominating worthy recipients in the years to come.
On that same leadership note, Association member Dave Lewis now serves as national president of the Society of American Foresters. He is the second Floridian in three years to serve in that capacity, further enhancing our standing and making Florida forestry more relevant to more people.
As I close out my final President’s Message, I am happy to report that the state of the industry is strong in Florida. Timberland Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs), Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), and other investors stand ready to acquire or expand their holdings in Florida’s forests. We have some of the most favorable combination of biological conditions, tax structure, mill and market structure, and regulatory conditions in the US and in the entire world. Florida is the place to own timberland in the heart of the fiber basket of the world, the Southeastern US. Many of our mills have recently expanded or upgraded their production capabilities; while some have been sold to investment groups or foreign owners, all have favorable outlooks on their business futures in Florida.
The state of the Association is strong as well. Incoming president Edward Cole and a new Executive Committee will press ahead with new enthusiasm, conviction, and ideas. In addition, we have the best staff that any volunteer leader could hope for. Their dedication, professionalism, and attitude lay the groundwork for our efforts to be more productive and better received by those we work with.
Many of our efforts are behind the scenes, in the trenches, or even somewhat mundane. All our efforts are intended to assure that the industry we choose to call ours lives on for generations to come in a more meaningful and relevant fashion.
I cannot tell you what a pleasure it has been to serve as your president and to represent some of the finest business people anywhere in the United States. Thank you for the opportunity.
Michael Dooner, a Society of American Foresters (SAF)-certified forester, is the founder and president of Southern Forestry Consultants, Inc. He directs much of the company’s northwest Florida operations and coordinates activities of sister companies Southern Forestry Realty and Wiregrass Ecological Associates.