The State House Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, chaired by Rep. Martin Causer, met Wednesday at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford with leaders of the Pennsylvania hardwoods industry to discuss challenges facing that sector of the economy.
"Today's meeting offered a great opportunity for lawmakers from other parts of the state to gain a better understanding about the impact of the forest products industry, not only here in the northern tier, but across the Commonwealth," Causer said. "That understanding is vital as we move forward and look at policy changes necessary to help the industry reach its full potential."
Joining Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding were John Norbeck, deputy secretary for parks and forests, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; Wayne Bender, executive director, Pennsylvania Hardwoods Development Council; Susan Swanson, executive director, Allegheny Hardwood Utilization Group; and David Gustafson, chief, forestry division, Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Also, Dr. Richard Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University; Dr. Michael Messina, professor and head of the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Penn State; Tom Kase, land manager with Collins Hardwood in Kane; and Ken Kane, president of Generations Forestry.
Besides Causer, R-Turtlepoint, other committee members were state representatives Mark Keller, vice chairman, Brad Roae, Kate Klunk, David Zimmerman, Eddie Day Pashinski, John Lawrence, Stephen Bloom and Mark Gillen.
Also present were Rep. Kathy Rapp and state Sen. Scott Hutchinson.
In his opening remarks, Redding said, "While the public doesn't usually consider that forestry products are an important sector of agriculture, hardwoods are actually our largest agricultural export."
He also mentioned the importance of the state's Green Ribbon Task Force that studies the current limitations on conservation and job growth and prepare an action plan to meet both challenges.
Wayne Bender, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hardwoods Development Council, pointed to statewide economic impact, saying, "While most of the state's hardwoods are harvested in north central and northwestern Pennsylvania, it is the southeastern counties of Lancaster, York, Montgomery and Philadelphia with the highest number of jobs in this industry."
Several of the biggest challenges facing the industry are industry-related.
"It's almost impossible to employ in the forestry industry when the workmen's compensation rates in Pennsylvania are almost twice as high as the ones in neighboring New York."
Kase agreed, saying, "it's difficult to get young people to follow in their parents' footsteps in the forestry industry when the workman's comp rates area that high."
Causer called the workmen's comp rates "a huge issue and the legislature must find a solution."
Another workforce concern is getting more young people familiar with and involved with the industry. Challenges include the focus on college, rather than vocational education and laws that may inhibit a family's ability to involve their younger children in learning the trade.
Lawrence spoke about his concern of local municipalities passing 'extraneous ordnances," which can interfere with timber harvesting."
According to Kane, "Local ordinances are not much of a problem here. There is legislation that protects the right to practice forestry."
Swanson called for a study of "unreasonable regulations and look to see if they're doing what they should be doing."
The panel also discussed the growing export of wood products to China, Canada and Mexico. While lawmakers praised the industry's involvement in world markets, several also encouraged developing more end-use manufacturers in Pennsylvania to insulate the industry from geopolitical concerns and to generate more job creations in the Commonwealth.
Causer closed the meeting by highlighting recent and ongoing legislative efforts to support the industry,
including new laws creating a tax exemption on logging equipment and an increase in the state's payment in lieu of taxes on DCNR land in the region.
He also pointed to continuing efforts to maintain funding for the Hardwoods Development Council in the Department of Agriculture's budget and to address the state's growing noxious weed problem, which can be damaging to the state's forests.
According to the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, Pennsylvania is the largest producer of hardwoods in the nation, accounting for ten percent of the total output in the United States. Revenue from the industry exceeds $5.5 billion annually, and about 90,000 people make a livelihood in forest products.
Kane led a forest tour, visiting the Bradford City Municipal Watershed property. The visitors viewed mature stands of timber, old growth sites affected by invasive species and others that are being actively managed, as well as some regenerated stands.