I graduated from high school in 1978. My father and I would hunt quail in those days all the way from Manchester in Clark County to Manning in Dallas County. We hunted along the edges of small fields planted in soybeans and cotton and also in garden patches of peas, sweet potatoes and corn. I still like to drive those rural roads of south Arkansas, but today almost all of the former fields are covered in pine trees.
I thus wasn't surprised when Gov. Asa Hutchinson noted in his weekly radio address that Arkansas has 1.2 million acres more of forestland than it had in 1978.
"We grew 20 million tons more than we harvested last year," Hutchinson said. "In fact, we've grown millions of tons of surplus timber in each of the past several years. That surplus is attractive for forest markets. Arkansas is the ninth-leading producer of timber in the United States. ... We harvest more than 24 million tons per year, which is worth about $445 million to landowners. As long as we have buyers for our timber, we can keep our forests thinned out and healthy.
"If we continue to produce that level of surplus for too many years, eventually our forests will become too dense, which will reduce the quality of trees as they compete for sun, water and nutrients. Dense forests increase the risk of insect infestations and wildfires. As we continue to grow our forests, we must expand into new markets and find new uses for timber."
There are several pieces of good news for the Arkansas timber industry. With wildfires now an annual scourge in the West, Arkansas is increasingly viewed as a national leader in the industry. An example of the recognition the state is getting came last month when Joe Fox, the state forester, was selected as president of the National Association of State Foresters. Fox is an Arkansas native who worked in a family-owned lumber business at Pine Bluff and Sheridan for more than two decades. He holds degrees from North Carolina State University in both forestry and agricultural economics.
Prior to becoming state forester, Fox was director of conservation forestry for the Arkansas office of the Nature Conservancy. He's a former president of the Arkansas Forestry Association. Fox, his father and his grandfather were members of the Arkansas Forestry Commission. They're the only family that has had three generations on the commission.
Another piece of positive news is the work being done by Peter MacKeith, dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas. MacKeith, an internationally recognized timber innovator, received a Fulbright Fellowship to Finland in 1990. It was a country covered with forestland. During the past 30 years, MacKeith has worked as a liaison between the architecture, art and design cultures of the United States, Finland and the Nordic region.
When MacKeith came to Arkansas in 2014, he noted that the state is like Finland in the sense that large parts of it are covered by forests. To be exact, 57 percent of Arkansas is forested. That's almost 19 million acres of trees.
"What does it mean to be a school of architecture and design in a state almost 60 percent covered in forest?" MacKeith asks. "Beginning in 2014, the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design has asked and responded to this and other similarly phrased questions with increasing commitment. ... The school's focus on catalyzing the potential and opportunities of Arkansas' forests now has attained multiple forms of activity, production and impact."
I visited with MacKeith last month, and he told me he was speaking the next day to an event sponsored by The Architect's Newspaper that was titled "The Future of Mass Timber." The Architect's Newspaper promoted the event this way: "Mass timber construction is on the rise from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South, promising new potentialities in tactile design and engineering, all while offering aesthetically pleasing solutions to sustainability goals."
That same week, The New York Times published a story headlined "As Concerns Over Climate Change Rise, More Developers Turn to Wood."
It's nice to see Arkansas on the cutting edge of this movement.
Keith Schneider wrote in The Times about the "fast-growing American market for tall wood buildings constructed of the laminated panels, beams and columns that the industry calls mass timber. Developers are turning to wood for its versatility and sustainability. And prominent companies like Google, Microsoft and Walmart have expressed support for a renewable resource some experts believe could challenge steel and cement as favored materials for construction. ... Wood has several advantages over other building materials, including the ability to help curb climate disruption, that are driving the interest."
Walmart will soon build a corporate campus in Bentonville unlike anything this state has ever seen. It will rely heavily on mass timber.
"Demolition is under way to make room for 12 cross-laminated timber buildings encompassing 2.4 million square feet," Schneider wrote. "The largest is 332,000 square feet, and the tallest is five stories. ... Southern yellow pine, raised in Arkansas forests and cut by local mills, will be turned into laminated panels, beams and columns by Structurlam Mass Timber Corp., a Canadian manufacturer. The wood will be produced in a 288,000-square-foot mill in Conway."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.