Vice Chairman Bobby Wright:
A Family Forestland Legacy and Passion for the Great Outdoors
This month, we asked our Board’s Vice Chairman, Bobby Wright, to share with us about his love for the land, his experience in land and forest management, and why he felt compelled to join the Land Trust. As a long-time landowner, timber farmer, and lover of all things outdoors, Bobby has a unique perspectives and deep roots here in our local and regional landscape. We invite you to join us as we listen in on his story:
On Joining the Land Trust’s Board:
“I came to join the Land Trust’s Board in the summer of 2015, but really I have known about the Land Trust and their work from the time it was formed in 2001. Many of my close friends were instrumental in founding the Trust and have served as board members. I was thrilled to be invited for consideration myself in the Spring of 2015. The Land Trust has been so instrumental in preserving the water quality of the major waterways in our area. They have also been able to preserve so many critical properties from the threat of development. My main reason for joining the board was to help continue the great work being done and to hopefully grow the size and scope of the Trust.”
Tell us about your history with the land. Where did it all begin?
“My family has been fortunate to have owned forestlands since the early 20th century. We had a tract in western Alabama of 1520 acres that went back to my great, great grandfather. It was all river swamp and hardwoods in the Tombigbee River basin. In the early 1980s, my dad and a partner purchased additional land in central Alabama, in the black belt region west of Montgomery. We had 2 tracts totaling about 800 acres there. The main focus of these properties was for wildlife and hunting, more so than actual tree farming. We maintained these properties in their natural state, with mainly hardwood trees growing naturally as opposed to being planted for timber.
Due to the distance involved, with these tracts being so far from our home in Georgia, my family started to divest of these properties beginning in the late 1980s. Then, in the early 1990s, we began a discussion that was one of the most difficult ones we ever made: the possibility of selling the 1520 acre tract on the Tombigbee River. While we loved the land, we just thought it would be so much better to have a place close to our home. In 1993, we found a buyer for our land on the Tombigbee in Alabama, and found a piece of land in Screven County, Georgia that we loved. The deal was difficult to do, but the decision was made. We swapped the place in Alabama for 1300 acres on Brier Creek in Screven County.
Wildlife Management and Timber Farming: What is your perspective?
Our family’s forestry plan has always been much more focused on wildlife, rather than tree farming. Preserving the hardwoods that provide so much food for so many animals and birds has always been at the forefront of any timber decisions we’ve made. This method is not the most profitable way to harvest trees. However, we do recognize that trees have a lifespan and at some point they need to be harvested and re-growth needs to occur.
Often, when trees become mature, they begin to lose some of their ability to maximize food for wildlife and they no longer provide the cover wildlife need to hide from predators and to reproduce efficiently. At this point, a timber harvest can help regenerate the forest and serve the wildlife population.
When we do decide to harvest timber, multiple factors come into play. One of the most important factors we consider is the protection of our waterways. For instance, SMZs (Streamside Management Zones) are critical to protecting waterways from silt loss. We always make sure to leave very large SMZs around all of our waterways, where no cutting is done, to prevent the topsoil loss and introduction of silt into the waterway.
At times we might “clear cut” a specific area of a forest away from the waterway, where all trees are removed. This allows for natural reforestation and, while it’s not pretty for several years, the regeneration process provides excellent wildlife habitat. The young trees and understory that comes back when the forest canopy is removed provides the perfect cover and place to find food for wildlife and birds.
In 2008, my family decided to permanently preserve our 1300 acre tract in Screven County with the National Wild Turkey Federation. We are committed to keeping that property in a natural state forever. In addition to this big tract, we also have a 300 acre tract in Jefferson County. That property is mostly a pine tree growing place, but we do have about 80 acres of hardwood forest along Rocky Comfort Creek. The soil there is not the highest quality, but it is great for growing pine trees. We make sure to protect the hardwood forest in the low areas in between the planted pines, leaving the mature hardwoods for the wildlife. And of course will never cut the trees near the creek where all the cypress and tupelo trees are.
How did you develop such a deep appreciation of nature?
Sweat equity is a great way to get close to the land. Being out there and planting trees like sawtooth oaks, chestnuts, persimmons, and fruit trees is a labor of love. Planting food plots, conducting prescribed burns, clearing roads and things of that nature are how you can get really close to nature and learn so much about your property and all the thousands of animals and birds that live there. I am fearful that the younger generation is moving away from this endeavor, and that they don’t feel the bond with nature and land that so many people in our older generations have. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing deer or turkeys eating acorns from a tree that you planted as a seedling, nurtured, that now is 40 feet tall and producing hundreds of high protein acorns or fruit for the animals.
When it comes to trees, a long term vision is required. This is not corn that you plant in April and harvest that summer. There is no immediate gratification when it comes to growing trees. But you know that they are there, growing, and will produce tremendous amounts of food and oxygen over their lifetime.
What changes have you seen in local timber farming over the years?
In the last decade, our area has seen a noticeable decrease in timber farming, especially of southern pine trees. Higher prices for the main Georgia farm crops – cotton, peanuts and corn – have led many to convert their planted pine plantations back into agricultural fields. Timber needs at sawmills have also changed, and many mills do not want large logs anymore. They prefer smaller logs for their mills, which means faster timber rotations for many tree farmers. When most farmers once waited 30+ years to do a final harvest, now most tree farmers are planting, thinning, and harvesting their trees in just 20-22 years, due to the lack of demand for larger logs and lack of price appreciation for larger logs.
What are some outdoor places and activities that you love?
As far as outdoor activities, I love them all: hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, camping, observing wildlife, farming for wildlife etc. I love being on the water and especially like the rapids of the Savannah River and the slow moving waters of Brier Creek. Fishing with my son out in the rapids is especially unforgettable. Being on the Savannah feels like you are out west and hardly a person or boat is ever seen, when really you are just a couple of miles from a large metro area of over 500,000 people. I also love the Smokey Mountains of western North Carolina.”
What is one of your favorite sayings about life or nature?
This one sums up what forestry is all about to me:
“It is a wise man who plants trees in whose shade he knows he will never rest.” (Greek proverb)