Reflections on the American Forestry Conference

August 1, 2020
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Shawn Baker presents on trends in logging businesses.

Last week I tuned into the American Forestry Conference, a virtual conference on the forest products industry and how forestry businesses can reshape the future US economy. The conference, organized by the Georgia Forestry Association, had 35 speakers that discussed topics such as the challenges and opportunities of the role of forestry in the current and future economic climate. In an email, the organizing committee reported 540 attendees from 26 US states.

I was first attracted to the conference because its schedule listed many timely topics about how the forest industry is responding to COVID-19. It was also not promoted as an academic conference, which I myself have spent too many wasted hours in the middle of. Plus, it’s not every day that US House of Representative members and advisers to the US president discuss the role of trees and forests. The conference had a lot of appeal.

I initially hadn’t realized that the content for the conference would be available for the remainder of the year. I myself ended up watching the presentations asynchronously, and I’ll likely watch a few more in the coming weeks.

Talks were pre-recorded in advance and were very well laid out. A follow-up Q&A session over Zoom was organized with the speaker to ask specific questions. I found the separation of these to go over very well because it was nice to focus on only the presentation and not see the flood of chat messages and questions that come in during many Zoom calls.

A few highlights from the conference that I took away are:

(1) Panel with Reps. Bruce Westerman and Kevin McCarthy and Ivanka Trump

      It was refreshing to hear members of Congress and an adviser to the US president discussing the role of trees and forests. Regardless of your political affiliation, this was great to see. Rep. Westerman is the only forester in Congress, and it was great to witness the dynamics between him as a knowledgeable forester and McCarthy and Trump. They discussed the advantages of building with wood (using the new Walmart campus as an example), the Trillion Trees Initiative, and opportunities for markets with carbon.

(2) Presentations on timber supply and logging

Presentations by Brooks Mendell and Shawn Baker of Forisk provided great perspectives on data behind the US forest products industry and the impacts of COVID-19. Presentations highlighted the trends in mills across North America, the growth in logger productivity in recent years, and how logging truckers are often more desirable in non-logging industries. A panel session on timber harvesting and logistics that followed provided useful insights into how small businesses from across the country are responding to the challenges of COVID-19.

(3) A discussion on leadership for the forest sector

      It is often the soft skills rather than the technical skills that advance a career in forestry. Doug Reed, President at Green Diamond, spoke on lessons in leadership. I wrote several useful nuggets of wisdom down like “You can’t be afraid of the numbers” and “Hire slow, fire fast” as I listened to him speak. More presentations like this as a part of conferences will help our younger professionals in the forest industry.

My primary criticism was that few speakers from outside the US South were included on the agenda. I recognize the conference was organized by a forestry association in the US South, but I would have welcomed more perspectives from the northern and western states. This would have made it more of an “American” conference.

On the whole the conference was very well organized and came across well in the digital environment. This was one of my first ventures in participating in a large virtual conference and it was well worth the registration fee. Other organizers of similar virtual forestry conferences should take note.

By Matt Russell. Sign up for my monthly newsletter for in-depth analysis on data and analytics in the forest products industry.

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