Break the Bottleneck: From forest floor to mill door, FWRC researchers keep wood moving

By: Vanessa Beeson

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Posted: 9/8/2022

Break the Bottleneck: From forest floor to mill door, FWRC researchers keep wood moving Photo By: Submitted

When the I-40 bridge closure severed a main transportation artery through Memphis in May 2021, the Arkansas Trucking Association estimated a daily loss of $2.4 million for the state's trucking industry. While Mississippi bridges aren't making national headlines, they do cause headaches for the logging industry. Approximately 226 of Mississippi's bridges are closed because of structural decline. Many more have reduced weight limits. FWRC researchers aim to determine how to streamline transportation from the forest to the state's wood baskets so the timber and logging industries make and save more with each and every haul.

TimberMart-South, which studies stumpage and delivered wood data, reported recently that the trucking rate across the South is $0.15 per ton per mile.

Dr. Eric McConnell, an assistant professor in the forestry department and project co-principal, said that adds up quickly.

"At 27 tons per load, this equates to $4.05 per mile. Thus, every ten miles adds $40, on average regionally, to the cost of the load," he said.

McConnell points out that while many of the challenges the logging industry faces have been addressed over the years, infrastructure's impact on the industry is unknown.

"Trucking issues have plagued the industry for more than a decade. While solutions have continually been sought from the perspectives of workforce training, financial needs, and standing of firms, little has been conducted around how infrastructure impacts the industry," he said.

Approximately 40 percent of the cost of logging is tied up in transportation. In 2020, while the state's total timber value was $1.2 billion, the harvesting and transportation value exceeded $665 million, according to a recent MSU report produced by Dr. John Auel, former assistant extension professor.

"If hauling costs are lower, the price paid for standing timber will be better, timber producers will get a better harvest with a more complete utilization of resources and, ultimately, the land's value will improve from a timber investment standpoint," McConnell said.

Dr. Robert Grala, forestry professor and co-principal investigator, said the team will assess how transportation stacks up from forest to mill.

"We'll assess the location of mills, determine how much wood is available within the procurement zone, evaluate that at the regional average haul of 50 miles and then see what the optimal routes would be for them to recover that timber and how it compares to bridges and roads within the radius and decide if there are barriers for optimization," he said.

Dr. Shaun Tanger, assistant forestry professor and extension specialist at the Coastal Research and Extension Center, is the principal investigator on the work. The two-year study aims to help timber producers, sawmills, and state transportation authorities alike, while also tackling a major priority of the Mississippi Forestry Commission.

"We hope to streamline logging transportation systems to keep them sustainable and profitable and keep the wood moving. We will assess routes and bridges, where truck weight and size are limited, and where many are in imminent need of repair and likely to be closed, and effectively are increasing hauling distance and transportation cost to the selected mills. In this way, we can select the most impactful routes for wood procurement and identify bridges and road links which should be prioritized for repairs," he said.

Ultimately, the team hopes to expand the research regionally, offering online training to show other states how to perform a similar analysis. Tanger also expressed excitement in the project's potential to be expanded in scope across other industries.

"We are building a blueprint for how infrastructure impacts one industry across the state. This could grow into a much larger analysis inclusive of many industries across the state and region," Tanger said.

This work is sponsored by the USDA Forest Service and the Forest and Wildlife Research Center.