The ever-growing popularity of reality television has set its sights on the once-little-thought-about industry of timber-harvesting and logging.

With such shows as Swamp Loggers, Ax Men and American Loggers, cable channels have hauled in good ratings, sparking an intense interest in the timber business.

The shows are so watchable in part because of the compelling stories of the various families fighting to keep their businesses afloat in these economic hard times.

Bennett Timber in DeRidder is among those in the war as it tries to keep the three-generation Louisiana logging operating going. The family was introduced to the forest business by patriarch R.E. “Jack” Bennett when much of Beauregard Parish’s piney woods were still virginal.

The senior Bennett owned and operated three sawmills in Beauregard’s longleaf forest.

After several years, the business passed to his son, R.E. Bennett Sr., who was also known as Jack. In those days the company, like most other West-Central Louisiana loggers, harvested short wood, which is better know as pulpwood, and maintained its own wood yard.

Revenue was generated mainly by hauling and selling to mills in southeastern Texas.

After graduating in 1981 with a degree in wildlife and forestry, Robert Bennett, the third generation, entered the business with his father. They worked side-by-side until Robert bought out the business in the
early 1990s.

The father-and-son team continued working together until Robert’s dad died 12 years ago. Under Robert’s leadership, the company has doubled in size.

“We have 25 employees, and we have a contractor that works under us, and he has about 120 employees,” Robert says.

Wood Basket

“We are blessed to be sitting right in the middle of the Southern wood basket,” he says. “DeRidder is centered in the middle of probably 20-plus mills, and there is probably no other region in the country in that shape.”

Robert says that although the television programs amp up the drama of eking out a living in the logging woods in these times of rising fuel and equipment costs, they are accurate.

“Business will continue to get tighter,” he says. “Margins are continuing to get smaller, and we are able to stay in business because of size and volume of business. One thing that has hurt is our equipment cost. We have seen a 12 to 15 percent increase on equipment just about every year, and that is making margins tight. We can’t pass that along, and it is hard to work around that.”

C.A. “Buck” Vandersteen, director of  both the Louisiana Forestry Association and the Louisiana Logging Council headquartered in Alexandria, agrees that the soured economy has dramatically hurt loggers and the state.

“The forest products industry is doing about half of what was done just five years ago,” he says. “We were generating almost $5 billion to the economy of Louisiana, and this past year it is now down to $2.5 billion, and that is attributed greatly to the state of the economy, particularly to the housing market.”

Vandersteen says mills have been forced to close, resulting in the loss of vital jobs. Mill employees were not the only ones hurt by the lagging forest industry: “This economic downturn in Louisiana resulted in a 30 percent loss of its loggers,” he says. “We lost 300 of our 1,000 logging contractors over the last couple years, and those that are remaining are struggling, trying to make it through with the eternal optimism that things are going to be better tomorrow.”

After a dismal 2009, last year saw a resurgence in the state’s timber and lumber industries.

“We have seen some slow times,” Robert says. “In 2009 everybody was slow, but we have actually been in good shape because of the diversity of the mills. There are so many different types of mills — solid wood; lumber and plywood; OSB, which is also called chipboard.”

Luckily, Oakdale is home to the largest OSB plant in the United States.

“The rest of the mills are paper-related, whether it be newsprint or linerboard,” he says. “The paper side of the forestry business is still good.”

Vandersteen says: “Last winter was wet, and a lot of our mills were beginning to run out of wood, so it was very profitable if you could find a place to harvest timber where the ground would hold up a logging operation. Of course with the export market picking up some and the value of the dollar lower than foreign businesses are accustomed to, they came to the U.S. and bought our products, like linerboard, packing products, like pallets, and shipped overseas.”

Robert says he was able to weather the storm by being among one of the state’s oldest and most-established timber companies and being willing to diversify by meeting the needs of regional mills.

The television shows also correctly reflect the difficulties of someone attempting to break into the
logging business.

“Financing is becoming harder due to the losses in 2009 from other parts of the country,” Robert says. “It will make things even tighter in other parts of the country, like the West, that had logging losses with mills being gone.”

Vandersteen agrees it is difficult for a person to go into the logging business because of the economy.

“The best loggers for future generations are coming out of generational operations,” he says. “It has been rough in the logging industry. Parents … always want their children to do better than they did, and some of those young people are being discouraged to go into the logging business.”

Robert says that is true for his two sons. Neither of them followed their father into the family business.

“I want them to see the rest of world before doing anything else,” he says. “I never told them they could not come to work, but their interests went in other directions, and I encouraged them to pursue that while they are still young.

“I’m 52 and still have a little life left in me,” Robert adds, laughing. “The opportunity will be there if they want it, and we’ll see where the Lord leads.”

Looking for Drama

Like their television counterparts, both Robert and Vandersteen agree they are looking forward to the economy picking up.

“Demand will continue to grow for linerboard since people are buying over the Internet,” Robert says. “They need cardboard boxes for shipping.”

Robert says he’s had people call and remind him that he should be watching the logging shows.

“They are made for television, but they do have some of the same issues from time to time,” he says. “I tell them to remember it’s television, and they have to have drama.”

Vandersteen says he too is amazed with the popularity of the programs. “It’s the aura of toughness and working out in the woods,” he says.

Besides cutting, loading and hauling wood, the television programs also touch on themes such as reduction of accidents, reforestation and preserving the environment.

Robert says training has resulted in more professional people in the logging industry and that due to training and mechanization, the logging industry has “cleaned itself up.”

Training has also resulted in nearly no accidents in the state’s logging industry.

All of Bennett Timber’s employees and contractors are certified as master loggers through the Louisiana Logging Council and its partnership with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative of the American Forest & Paper Association.

Robert says another important issue to ensure the sustainability of the logging industry are “best management practices,” which are practical guidelines used to lessen the environmental impact of forest management activities.

They include construction of roads, skid trails and log landings. “We go through a lot of training and continuing education,” he says. “By doing this, we ensure that we will stay in business.”

Vandersteen says forests are a renewable resource and that companies such as Bennett Timber ensure the future. He says loggers have had to adapt and become more diverse in their approaches to business. “The most important thing is that wherever a logger works, he works to the highest standards of good forestry principles, leaves the land looking good for future reforestation, and the next crop of trees can grow,” he says. “He wants to be able to go back in 10 to 15 years to harvest those trees again.”

Shrinking forestland is a factor the loggers on television deal with, and it is no different for Bennett Timber. “The companies we deal with have sold off their land bases, and that has both helped us and hurt us,” Robert says.

“It has made more things more competitive.”

Private landowners now account for 20 to 30 percent of business. “That has put us in a little better shape, and it has helped the private landowner,” he says. “An average timber tract for us now is much smaller. We are seeing more 40-to-50-acre tracts, and that is about half what it was 10 years ago.”

Vandersteen says the industry is seeing more fragmentation of the forestland because people are moving out of cities. “This creates many challenges like Bennett is facing with tract size,” he says. “It has resulted in contractors using different equipment schemes to satisfy landowners whether they be small or large.”

In Vandersteen’s estimation,. Robert Bennett stands as an example of the best Louisiana has to offer in its logging industry. “Robert is a strong and dignified individual who does his work and is always there,” he says. “He does not look for glory and does not look to be king of the logging industry. His actions speak louder than words.”

Robert says one fact is certain: Logging has come a long way “since the days of baseball caps
and tennis shoes.”

(See a related story about Shelby Stanga)

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