Help for loggers sought in special session

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Mississippi Loggers Association is seeking assistance fromthe state Legislature, and is attempting cut into the agenda of theupcoming special session to get it.

At a meeting of the southwest district Saturday night inBrookhaven, association members reiterated their need forlegislative help to the logging industry in the form of anincreased harvest limit for highway travel, tax cuts on supply andmaintenance items and the waiving of some taxes for landowners.

Association member John Mabry of Sam Mabry Lumber Co. in Libertysaid the state of the logging industry in Mississippi is desperate- with almost 2,000 logging companies closed in the last eightyears – and legislative relief is necessary to keep it afloat.

“Everything is a drop in the bucket, and we need many drops inour bucket,” he said. “But we’ll take any we can get. It’s a crisissituation right now.”

The association is requesting the harvest limit for its logtrucks be raised two tons, from 84,000 lbs. to 88,000 lbs. It ishoped that such an increase will allow loggers to save on fuel bytransporting fewer and bigger payloads.

Earlier this year, both the House and Senate approved such anincrease to 94,000 lbs., but the bill later died after strongopposition from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, Mabrysaid. The association has since lowered its request to 88,000 lbs.in the hopes of a compromise.

The association is also seeking tax cuts on crucial items suchas tires, belts and hoses and the waiving of the severance and longterm capital gains taxes for landowners who supply the timber.Mabry admitted the association needs help from within the industryitself and is leaning heavily on the Legislature.

“The expense side of this has to come from government, but therate side has to come from the landowners and the mills,” he said.”And with a depressed market, there is no room for extra help fromthe mills. It’s a catch-22.”

If legislative relief is not forthcoming, Mabry said the loggingindustry could be facing its final days.

“What else can be done?” he asked. “The only thing that’s goingto help the logging industry is help on logging rules and expenses.If we lose loggers, how will the mills receive logs? What willhappen to the paper companies? They will struggle.”

Southwest district president Chet Rester of Rester and Son Inc.,of Silver Creek said the collapse of the logging industry in thisarea would result in the termination of several thousand jobs inconnected forestry industries.

“If we don’t get help from somewhere, we’ll have to shut down -it’s coming,” he said. “You can’t go to the woods, make a dollarper day and spend two.”

State executive director Cecil Johnson is facing exactly thatpossibility.

This week, he said, he will weigh the decision of whether tokeep Cecil Johnson Logging operating in Mantee or to close thedoors. He said his company has scaled back operations by 50percent, logging only two weeks per month at best.

“For the month of April, I paid $31,000 in fuel,” he said. “Youcan’t keep doing it, the profit is not there.”

While Johnson contemplates the future of his own company, he isserving as the chief liaison between the association and the stategovernment, making moves to get the association on the specialsession’s agenda. As of the last meeting between the associationand the governor’s staff on April 29, nothing is guaranteed.

“They said they’d let us know, but so far we haven’t heardanything,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the association has the support of severallegislators, as evidenced by the passing of the harvest limitincrease bill earlier this year. The continuing opposition from thetransportation department, however, is the source of frustration inthe logging community.

“We pay taxes to run on the roads – we shouldn’t have thisopposition, but we do,” said association member Tamme Bufkin. “Wepay the heavy use tax, but that doesn’t seem to matter – our logtrucks can’t run on the interstate.”

Allowing log trucks onto interstates is a federal matter, butharvest limits can be dealt with at the state level. The problemwith raising the limits, said MDOT Law Enforcement Director ChiefWillie Huff, is the damage added weight would cause.

“Any time you increase weight limits, you increase the damage tothe highways and bridges,” he said. “The question is, how is thedamage to the infrastructure going to be recouped?”

Huff pointed out that loggers were not the only organizationfeeling the strain of high fuel prices. MDOT is also paying highprices for fuel and asphalt, and is currently able to maintain lesshighway mileage than ever, he said.

“Our job is to make sure the traveling public has a safe,consistent roadway on which to travel,” Huff said. “I understandthe pressure the loggers are under, I just don’t know what theanswer is.”

Huff said the final decision rests in the hands with theLegislature, and MDOT will act as instructed.

“We’ll be glad to work with anybody to try and come up with asolution that is not going to impact safety,” he said.

In order to increase the probability of gaining a spot on thespecial session, which has been mentioned as being planned forlater this month, and a chance to iron out such a solution, Bufkinhas been busy rallying support from other states. She said she hasbeen in contact with loggers and government officials from Alabama,Florida and Louisiana.

Bufkin has also spoken directly with the governor of Maine,where the Legislature has already enacted several laws to assistits loggers, such as sales tax breaks and harvest limitincreases.

The association is not only going after Mississippi’sgovernment, but is aiming for Washington, D.C. as well. Associationmembers have already met with the state’s congressional delegationand are undertaking a massive phone call operation to all 535members of Congress.

“Whichever dog barks loudest gets the bone,” Bufkin said. “If wecall and call and harp on this, we feel like Washington will bemore attentive.”

The association is also prepared to demonstrate if it is notawarded time on the special session’s agenda. In the even that itis passed over, the association plans to obtain a parade permitfrom the city of Jackson and drive log trucks around the Capitol inprotest.