Tree farmer Kent Hinson says he is out on a limb when it comes to his pro-environment view.
"Most foresters in general look at the environmentalists as an adversary, as a group that makes rules about how we should do our jobs," said Hinson, who owns about 200 acres of forestland near Dublin in central Georgia. "Me, I believe that foresters should be environmentalists first. I may be an odd forester, but we are both trying for the same thing."
Now that the Bush administration is planning to open roadless forests to commercial logging, more tree farmers are joining Hinson by reaching out to environmental groups to keep a glut of timber off the market.
Small farmers who have benefited from timber restrictions banning logging in the vast federal lands in the West do not stand to be awarded the massive contracts the timber, oil and gas goliaths will pursue. Instead, they fear the entry of more lumber in the logging market.
"It's bad for the environment and bad for the pocketbooks of the tree farmer," said Mark Woodall, who grows about 6,000 acres of trees near LaGrange in west Georgia.
The White House is rewriting a restriction ordered in the Clinton administration's final days that essentially protected almost 60 million acres of federal forestland from logging, mining and oil and gas development by prohibiting road construction.
The change, announced in July, would give governors the difficult decision in early 2006 of whether to petition the federal government to permit new roads in their forests or keep them untouched.
Although the decision affects more than 30 percent of national forests, the more than 700,000 acres spanning Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia are a relatively small portion compared with the huge tracts of pristine forest in the West.
Those tracts are worrisome to tree farmers such as Woodall, who has experienced the rising price of sawtimber pinewood over 15 years. Prices now reach almost $40 a ton.
"The restrictions doubled our prices, so if you went back, it could cut our prices in half," he said.
The logging business has not been all solid, though. Timber prices fluctuate with droughts, and beetle infestations can devastate acres. Products made from small wood chips melded together are draining the demand for timber, and business is being exported to China and South America.
Groups including the Southern Environmental Law Center are hoping to harness the power of concerned loggers before the two-month comment period on the roadless restrictions ends Sept. 14.
"There are folks out there getting the information out to tree farmers and landowners," said David Carr, head of the center's public lands project.
Foresters and environmentalists have allied in the past, particularly to fight encroaching urban sprawl, and both groups applauded the 2001 creation of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.
Supporters of the decision say it will help preserve forest health by allowing forest thinning to clear out the potentially dangerous undergrowth that can fuel fires.
They also insist new roads will also provide access to campers, bikers and firefighters.
Environmental groups, though, point to about 9,500 roads that already cut into forests in the South. "There's already tons of access," Carr said.
The lobbying extends beyond tree farmers. They are trying to mobilize outdoorsmen as well as politicians to fight the rule. They point to protest letters from both houses of Congress addressed to President Bush.
Some tree farmers have already started to lobby governors, even though they could not appeal to the federal government until 2006.
"I think here in the South all the governors we've talked to have said this could be bad for the economy down here," said Woodall, a member of the Sierra Club.