Wicker hears forestry concerns on tour

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, June 3, 2008

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker took stock of the ailing forestryindustry and the condition of Columbus Lumber Co. Monday afternoonduring a campaign visit that took him across Brookhaven on a”learning tour.”

The appointed senator from Pontotoc stood atop a stack of lumberin a warehouses and addressed the company’s more than 100 employeesabout the price of fuel. Fuel costs, along with a faltering housingindustry, have been cited as one of the chief culprits cripplingMississippi’s forestry industry.

Wicker iterated his support for any congressional measure thatwould call for the country’s own oil reservoirs to be tapped,including drilling in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and mining oilshale.

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“We have great resources in the United States,” Wicker toldemployees. “There’s no sense in us going to Saudi Arabia, anunstable country, and begging them to turn on the pipes.”

Later, Wicker listened to the concerns of company co-owners JeffGrierson and Doug Boykin, who explained what the various forestryindustries mean to the state and what small steps could be taken tohelp the current crisis.

“The backbone of Mississippi, as far as saw milling goes, istruly the independent sawmill,” Grierson told the senator. “A lotof the corporate mills have closed down and left.”

Grierson explained that sawmills like Columbus Lumber were beingforced to offer less money for stumpage price – money paid tolandowners for the right to harvest timber – in order to subsidizediesel fuel. Grierson said, eventually, landowners would ceaseaccepting lowered stumpage prices and the supply of timber to themills would dry up.

“It’s one of the biggest threats we see as far as diesel pricesto our industry,” he said. “And it’s not just this company, butcompanies all over the state.”

Grierson and Boykin also informed Wicker that the industry wouldbe helped if Mississippi would raise highway weight limits forloggers – at least to a level equivalent of those in Louisiana.Columbus Lumber imports a large amount of timber from the BayouState.

Wicker said raising highway weight limits was strictly a statematter – one that has failed to gain attention from the legislaturein Jackson, despite lobbying done by the Mississippi LoggersAssociation to have the issue placed on the special session’s call.Wicker said he could issue support from the federal level to astate bill if such support was needed.

Wicker continued, however, to name fuel prices as the number oneissue affecting the forestry industry. He indicated it is an issuethat supersedes all other repairing measures like weightlimits.

“When it’s all said and done, it comes back down to fuel,”Wicker said. “If we didn’t have these price spikes, the forestryindustry wouldn’t be facing this crisis.”

Wicker said it was foolish for Congress to continue to ignorethe “vast” resources available in the country. He said Americacould muster three times the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia in oilshale alone, yet Congress was unwilling to proceed. Wicker calledopposing forces – mainly Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – intoquestion.

“Pelosi said she was going to do something about fuel prices -well, they’ve gone up,” Wicker said. “All we’ve seen from her is abill to sue the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries(OPEC) and a bunch of rhetoric to make us feel good.”

To the “extreme” environmentalists who oppose the tapping of thecountry’s oil resources, Wicker said there was such a thing asenvironmental overkill.

“Most people realize we can have development and still be goodstewards of the Earth,” he said. “But we’ve gotten to the point inenvironmental overkill that we’re jeopardizing the economy. We’reactually enriching our enemies, while we could be enriching our owneconomy, all the while creating industry jobs in America.”

During his stop in Brookhaven Monday, Wicker also toured King’sDaughters Medical Center, visited with officials and residents atthe government complex and attended an Industrial DevelopmentFoundation board meeting. The senator, who was appointed by Gov.Haley Barbour following Sen. Trent Lott’s retirement last year,faces Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in the November election.

Wicker said his trip to Brookhaven was an opportunity to “listento the people.” He was complimentary of the city’s services andbusinesses, and the cooperation between them.

“This has been a good experience – you’ve got health care,economic development and local government all working together,”Wicker said. “If you want a snapshot of a good local community,this has been a good tour.”