The North Coast’s biggest timber operator says the economy is looking up in tall timber country despite the state’s still sagging new housing and home improvement markets.
Furloughed mill employees are being called back to work, and in some instances new positions are being filled.
“We have many good and valid reasons to believe that the worst is behind us,” according to a statement issued by a San Francisco-based investment group which owns Mendocino Redwood and Humboldt Redwood companies. Together the two Fisher family affiliates own 440,000 acres of some of the nation’s best timber growing lands, mostly located in Mendocino and Humboldt counties.
Industry analysts say revving timber’s engine are rising lumber prices. Buyers seeking to replenish supplies have found the pipeline empty, and because harvest levels are still low, the trend is expected to continue through this year, according to Forest2Market, a web site that tracks demands and pricing.
The outlook contrasts sharply from a year ago, when timber companies like Mendocino and Humboldt were laying off workers, closing production facilities and sharply reducing logging operations. Harwood Products, Mendocino County’s last large independent mill operator, went bankrupt 18 months ago.
A gloomy 2009 further underscored a radical decline in timber-based employment in California, which has fallen 40 percent over the past 20 years. The slide is especially hard felt in timber counties, where every lost mill job typically leads to two others being shed in local economies, according to the California Forestry Association.
That the worst of the most recent downturn may be over is significant for North Coast communities from Ukiah to Eureka.
Richard Higgenbottom, chief executive of the Fisher timber companies, said he’s cautiously optimistic that “2010 will be a year of good news.”
Early last year inventories had reached unusually high levels, even while logging rates plummeted to just one-third of normal levels, according to Higgenbottom. But now Higgenbottom said the companies are “reaching out” to private timberland owners to help determine 2010 harvest levels. Stepped up logging should be “good news to our loggers, haulers, contractors, vendors and broader business associates who have been patiently waiting for a return to better times.”
“Absent another collapse of the softwood timber markets, we do not expect downtime in any of our operations (this year) due to lack of sales,” said Higgenbottom.
A significant slice of North Coast timber production is used in the home improvement market, which has suffered less severely than new building construction. While home improvement markets are still shaky, a Harvard University think tank has concluded the downturn in that segment appears to be less severe than the home building industry.
The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies predicts key sources of future growth in the remodeling market include increasing demand for “green” improvements, upgrades to the nation’s aging rental stock, and a growing population of immigrant, first-time homeowners.
Mendocino and Humboldt Redwood companies fit with the “go green” remodeling movement.
The national Forest Stewardship Council and Smartwood has certified current management practices for 210,000 acres of former Pacific Lumber Co. land now owned by Humboldt Redwood Co. Earlier the Fisher ownership secured certification of 230,000 of former Louisiana-Pacific Corp. timberlands now owned and managed by Mendocino Redwood Co.
Higgenbottom hailed the Humboldt certification as a “major milestone” for the North Coast timber industry. “The FSC certification now enhances both our Mendocino and HRC brands, particularly for redwood and Douglas fir,” said Higgenbottom.