The Timber Game. Do You Know the Players?
The timber business is a mystery to most woodland owners. Since most do not understand who the various players are or their functions, here is a simplified rundown.
Mills buy raw timber products and turn them into lumber, paper, plywood, etc. Most mills have a product purchasing niche (pine pulpwood, hardwood logs, etc.). Some mills employ personnel to purchase timber, others rely on outside contractors (wood dealers), and others do both.
Wood dealers are independent buyers who supply mills with raw materials. They purchase standing timber, then contract loggers for the cutting and hauling to the various mills.
Loggers do the harvesting. Some buy timber (are wood dealers), but these days most are contractors that harvest for mills or wood dealers, focusing on production and leaving the hassle of timber inventory, marketing, negotiating, and contracts to someone else.
Pinhookers are the mercenary scam artists of the timber business and are famous (or infamous) for unsavory buying tactics. These speculators “flip” timber rights—meaning they purchase the timber cheaply, then resell them to another buyer at fair market value.
State forestry agents provide technical assistance, management advice, and cost-share funds for forestry activities such as tree planting. Additionally, they may provide services (such as understory burning) that aren’t readily available from private contractors. They do not provide timber inventory, appraisal, or sales services. They also have special agents that investigate timber theft and enforce water quality laws.
Forestry consultants represent landowners, providing forest management, timber appraisal, and sales services. When handling timber sales, most consultants work on a percentage fee like a real estate agent. The consultant category is the one under which I fall. The consultant’s job is to represent the client’s interests, providing informed, objective opinions on values and management direction. As your representative, the consultant should provide you with a full accounting of any money they earn while working for you—this means no hidden fees for services provided by outside contractors (site preparation, reforestation, survey, etc.).
Like any industry, the timber business is populated with the good, the bad, the incompetent, and the truly despicable. It differs from most others in that it is difficult to grasp without years of experience regularly dealing with the markets, land, and people in a particular region. Reading a few “How to Sell/Manage Your Timber” articles on an agricultural extension site or using one of the “do-it-yourself” online planners is not going to prepare you, and in many cases, can do more harm than good. Forest product demand and prices are volatile, and buyers offer vastly differing prices and work quality, so the novice landowner should seek a private forestry consultant's advice. When selecting a forester, make sure their management philosophy and ethics mesh with yours to ensure you get the desired results.
*Note: By law in NC and SC, the title “forester” can only be used by those who have met state board qualifications. All consultants are foresters. Timber buyers may be foresters or not—there is no licensing process to work as a timber buyer. Government “county rangers” are frequently not foresters.