Conference delegates showered with sawdust by demonstrators
Conference delegates showered with sawdust by demonstrators

The presence of up to 75 protesters outside the venue provided a unifying theme to discussions at the Who Will Own the Forest? conference hosted by the World Forestry Center in Portland, Oregon.

Participants at the late September event were instructed not to interact with demonstrators, who held signs and gave speeches critical of private ownership and management of forest resources.

Local coverage ahead of the event said a group unrelated to those demonstrating outside the venue – although they would have their own moment of protest at the conclusion of the conference – had smashed windows at the forestry center, leading to doors and windows being boarded up.

Conference organizers said it was the first time demonstrators have targeted the event since it was launched in 2001.

Onstage and off, panelists and audience members expressed varying degrees of bewilderment with the protesters’ vague demands, as well as sympathy for the environmental spirit motivating some of them. The interest and attention demonstrated by the crowds outside added an element of excitement and helped center, across the day and half of panels, what Andriy Hrytsyuk – a forestland investment manager with IKEA affiliate INGKA Investments – labeled the “increased demand for social license,” which he said is a key trend shaping the market’s future.

President and chief executive of the American Forest Resource Council Travis Joseph added: “Those people outside, those protesters, they’re not irrelevant. They really are highlighting what’s happening right now in the policy and communications space. Their sign out there on the firetruck says something like ‘Profits over the planet’. That’s their story. They are labeling you.”

“What we ought to do as a sector is take that space back. We’re ceding the space by saying: ‘You’re the environmentalist and we’re just the companies that want to reap the profits off of cutting down trees’. We’re going to lose that fight and that’s not true. Our sector is about sustainably managing these resources for society and we should lean into that space,” he advised.

Content across panels was united by a theme of opportunities and challenges stemming from new entrants and interest in timberland. Panelists compared notes about the impact of the recent focus on carbon, water quality and other natural capital opportunities within timberland markets still driven largely by the rhythms of wood product demand and supply.

Climate Asset Management investment manager James Bullen described an education effort among a group of new LPs that include corporates with no previous exposure to timber and are unfamiliar with its cashflows. Timberland Investment Resources managing director Chung Hong Fu described developments in the market since the pandemic as having supported creation of a “new normal” reflected in higher prices that is nonetheless threatened by a future of constrained demand for new home construction.

Small parcels, big impact

Hong Fu said while alternative sources of income for timberland have helped raise valuations, the market for smaller parcels has played a bigger role in creating a new higher floor under commercial timberland.

“There is an influx of private individual investors who want to own timberland. A couple hundred acres, a thousand acres, even small family offices are interested in, not only timberland as investment, but also for recreation or heritage value,” he said. “For all of that combined, they are willing to pay a certain level of premium that causes the recent rise in timberland for all.”

Labor constraints emerged as a common theme within panels focused on the industry side of the event’s programming, which included laments about difficulties hiring both skilled and unskilled labor across regions. Calls for action on the issue focused around extending existing outreach efforts and forging new partnerships with educational institutions to expand the workforce.

“One of our biggest concerns as a timber supplier has nothing to do with our timber; can we find people we can attract to the industry that we can offer housing to in the places where we operate and create successful careers?” asked a Green Diamond Resource Company executive.

The conference attracted around 400 people and included other panels dedicated to the impact of AI on timberland management and valuation; recent developments in fire risk insurance premiums, and increasing focus among US lawmakers on foreign investment in agricultural land. Highlights included a first-hand perspective on timberland’s appeal to family offices; a taxonomy of risks across key Latin American and African growth markets and an in-depth overview of the current state of demand and supply for forestry-derived carbon credits.

Discussions of the carbon market’s credibility among buyers and the public brought speakers back to the public concern reflected by the presence of demonstrators outside, which was a dominant topic among offstage discussion at the event.

Most expressions of sympathy for the group had largely vanished by the time of the cocktail party, which was punctuated about an hour in by a shower of sawdust provided by a pair of protesters who had snuck onto the roof with a bag of sawdust and a leaf-blower.

If nothing else, their action served to underline the message that public scrutiny of timberland markets accustomed to slow change is growing rapidly.