By STEVEN NALLEY
In 1978, Mark E. Rey was working with the National Forest Products Association, and one of his tasks was to help it hire a wildlife biologist for programs in Washington, D.C.
Rey said one of the the interviewees was Carlton N. Owen, a recent graduate of Mississippi State University. Having grown up in the Midwest and graduated from the University of Michigan, Rey said Owen was probably the first MSU alumnus he had ever met.
“As we went through the search process, we thought, ‘What a unique thing it would be to hire a Bulldog,’ and we did — We hired a guy from the University of Georgia,” Rey said, drawing laughter from his audience at MSU. “Actually, we eventually hired Carlton Owen, and I worked with him for many years.”
Rey, a former senior administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spoke at MSU’s 2012 Carlton N. Owen Lecture Series Wednesday at the Franklin Center for Furniture Manufacturing and Management, peppering his discussion of ongoing forestry issues with humorous anecdotes.
In the years since that meeting in 1978, Rey became USDA undersecretary for natural resources and environment from 2001-2009, and he currently serves as a public affairs consultant and executive-in-residence at Michigan State University. Owen became vice president of Champion International Corporation and executive director of the Sustainable Forestry Board, and he currently works to bring businesses and the environment together as a consultant.
“It’s a thrill to be here at Mississippi State,” Rey said. “It’s an even bigger thrill to give the Carlton Owen lecture, because ... I’ve known him for upwards of 35 years.”
Rey discussed five challenges forestry and the forest products sector currently face and new opportunities arising from each. He said the first of these challenges is instability in private forest land tenure to a degree not seen since the 1930s’ Dust Bowl.
“Over 75 percent of the forest land owned by corporate entities, by industry ... has changed hands at least once within the last 15 years,” Rey said. “Think about that. If that was occurring in any other area that invested capital in our economy, it would be the subject of great consternation.”
During the Dust Bowl, Rey said ownership instability created several opportunities for states to purchase forests, especially Michigan, which built much of its state forest system on land formerly used for agriculture.
“We’re actually going through that again,” Rey said. “Ultimately, in many cases the state will be the owner of these lands, and we’ll have to decide whether we want state forests in downtown Detroit or some other land use for what are now, in many cases, blocks of city that (include) homes that have been abandoned by families and others who have gone somewhere else.”
Another issue Rey discussed was the changing structure of the industry’s representation to governmental bodies at all levels. Where the American Forest and Paper Association once served as the industry’s united voice, he said there are now five different organizations with different voices. A diluted message is one result, Rey said, but other results include opportunities for new alliances with labor unions, agriculture groups and environmental groups.
Rey then discussed a third issue, the decline of traditional forest product markets, particularly housing. Paperless transactions are also becoming more of a reality as handheld devices grow more powerful, he said, reducing demand for paper. The U.S. market is not likely to return to its previous levels, he said, but other markets may fill the demand void.
“There are emerging markets of substantial size for traditional forest products in China and India, including wood-frame construction,” Rey said. “(India has) a population that is 20 percent larger than entire population of the U.S.”
Rey said the American soft wood industry has recently voted to start a checkoff program, in which it would tax itself to provide the USDA with dollars to promote and research the industry. Checkoff programs have created many well-known advertising campaigns, including “Pork: The Other White Meat,” “Got Milk?” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.”
The other two issues Rey discussed were reduced financial support for forest product research and the health of fire-prone forests. He said the two issues could be addressed by international research cooperatives and increased public awareness, respectively.
Several Mississippi State students and professors were in attendance, including Steve Turner, head of the university’s agricultural economics department.
“It was very informative,” Turner said. “He’s very knowledgeable about public policy and the inner workings of the USDA and the forestry industry.”
Turner said he also appreciated Rey’s touch of humor.
“Some of the legal issues are pretty dry most of the time,” Turner said, “so you usually want to inject some good clean humor into the discussion.”