Georgia is already the top state for commercial forestry, but a national conference launched virtually this week is aimed at even further cementing its role in a sector that sits at the intersection of global commerce and sustainability.  

The Georgia Forestry Association, a private industry group, saw an opportunity to use the state’s industry heft to grow its national profile with a virtual conference that could more easily attract high-level speakers, while showcasing an industry that has only grown more critical during the pandemic.  

“Forestry is important to America, and Georgia is important to forestry,” GFA President Andres Villegas told Global Atlanta matter-of-factly.  

The first-ever American Forestry Conference kicked off Monday with Walmart CEO Doug McMillon discussing the role of forest products in the mega-retailer’s sustainability strategy.  

That was followed up by a policy panel featuring presidential advisor Ivanka Trump and representatives Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).  

Tuesday, the second of four days of content, will include a panel of CEOs from such forest-industry giants as Georgia-Pacific, Weyerhauser, WestRock and DS Smith, along with a discussion featuring the governors of Georgia, Louisiana and Arkansas, in conversation with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, also a former Georgia governor.  

Other sessions focus on economic forecasting and the international trade environment — another crucial area for Georgia given its status as a major timber, paper and pulp exporter.  

Forestry generates more than 140,000 jobs across the state — more than either of the automotive and tourism industries. That includes 15,000 jobs at at corporate offices in Atlanta, showing that the impact is not all in rural areas, though forestry does positively affect many communities in dire need of economic activity.  

During the pandemic, Mr. Villegas noted that demand for forest products — from all-important pandemic essentials like toilet paper and lumber for do-it-yourself projects at home, to the cardboard boxes in which online orders are delivered — has stayed strong, showing the resiliency of the sector even amid a drastic downturn.  

The major question is where the consumption is taking place: Mostly at home rather than at the office, forcing a shift in supply chains, as well as policy shifts like temporarily allowing trucks to carry greater weights on highways, enabling them to transport more timber per load.  

“What we’ll talk about in the conference is how much of that is expected to be permanent and how much is just temporary while we go through and try to get to the end of the crisis,” Mr. Villegas said. “People need to make big decisions about hiring, investing, deploying capital, adjusting supply chains, changes in demand,, so we wanted them to hear about this from nation’s top leaders to help them be in position to make informed decisions.” 

The forestry industry also needs to tell its story of sustainability as COVID-19 makes consumers more conscious of the things they buy and the impact of their actions on the world.  

Major international initiatives like the One Trillion Trees Initiative highlight advantages of sustainably managed forests, wherein private commercial incentives align with global environmental goals like carbon sequestration. The positive effects are compounded, proponents argue, when trees are used in construction in place of carbon-intensive materials like concrete and steel.  

In Georgia alone, Mr. Villegas says, 200 million trees are planted per year to replenish those harvested across the 22 million forested acres in the state. Foresters know the value of this virtuous cycle, but the industry needs to make the case to tech companies and other firms looking to invest in sustainability initiatives. 

Governance of the forestry sector will also be a major topic of the conference, which is primarily aimed at industry professionals but can also provide a primer for those seeking to understand its effect on their communities.  

“Our industry touches wide swath of the American economy and the Georgia economy. This is a great opportunity for people who depend on forestry for their well being, either directly or indirectly, to get a glimpse of where we are today and where we’re going in the future.” 

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As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...