One of the more interesting quotes often attributed to famed investor Warren Buffett concerns planning for the future: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” 

Forests take decades to grow and mature and only moments to destroy. Properly managing a forest involves meeting the economic necessities of the present while laying the groundwork for ecological health and economic potential into the future. Forests provide countless, critical ecosystem services, including storing and purifying water, stabilizing soil and preventing erosion, capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and fostering biodiversity. 

Forests also provide significant economic benefits, including timber for construction, wood pulp for paper, and firewood for heating and cooking. 

Historically, the ecosystem services and economic benefits of forests have often been in conflict with each other, with people often placing short-term economic benefits above long-term ecosystem health, ultimately at the cost of both. 

For a recent example of this conflict, look no further than the 2019 Amazon rainforest wildfires. In an attempt to clear land for cattle grazing, ranch owners across the shrinking Amazon rainforest lit fires that quickly spread out of control, burning an estimated 2.3 million acres of forest and darkening the midday sky of cities hundreds of miles away. 

Forests must be carefully managed in order to provide mankind with crucial economic benefits while also performing essential ecological functions. Millions of acres of burned rainforest may provide ranchers with a temporary economic boom in terms of a larger grazing area, but the long-term effects of haphazardly clearing forests result in dire ecological and economic costs.  

Professionals in the forestry industry work to achieve a sustainable balance between the environmental and economic demands placed on forests. Though the management of forests is a very old profession indeed, the forestry industry is currently in the midst of a rapid modernization as business and environmental interests implement technological innovations that increase profitability and improve ecological health. 

This modernization is especially significant because of the role forests play in fighting climate change. Forestry professionals are looking to innovation to help them do more with less, and the growing urgency to address climate change will likely mean that innovation will be highly valued.

For those interested in the investment potential of this important industry, there are a few key points to understand.

What is forestry?

The North Carolina Forestry Association defines forestry as “The art and science of managing forests to produce various products and benefits including timber, wildlife habitat, clean water, biodiversity and recreation.” 

As an industry, forestry is vast, encompassing a multitude of business operations concerned with harvesting, transporting, refining, and distributing forest products. Deeper still is the underlying machinery and technology that make modern forestry possible. 100+ years ago, harvesting timber often involved men felling trees with axes or saws and transporting the timber to a sawmill via mule train. These days, timber is often harvested using cutting-edge technology, such as the cut-to-length (CTL) harvesting method. With CTL harvesting, specialized equipment cuts, cleans, and loads logs for transport in a matter of seconds, all while operators are safely inside the machine cabs and away from falling branches and dangerous terrain.

There is a growing movement in the forestry industry towards what is referred to as “precision forestry.” Precision forestry is an approach to managing forests that utilizes advanced technology to unlock greater economic and environmental value through improved information gathering and operational control. 

For instance, lidar is a cutting-edge surveying technology that uses lasers to generate extremely detailed maps. After mapping a forested area using lidar, forestry professionals are able to accurately estimate the quantity of standing timber, as well as where the access road should be built and which machinery should be brought in to do the job. Better information through technologies like lidar means that forest managers are able to make decisions that improve cost-efficiency and minimize environmental damage. 

When combined with other cutting-edge technologies, such as drones, soil sensors, and IoT-integrated devices throughout the harvesting and reforesting process, precision forestry is set to unlock significant value across the forestry industry.

Why invest in forestry?

While the accelerated adoption of advanced technologies is likely to improve cost-efficiency and drive innovation across the forestry industry in the coming years, current trends indicate that the industry faces tough headwinds. The demand for construction lumber, which surged in the years following the Great Recession, is waning, and domestic producers are facing increased competition from foreign lumber firms. 

In the U.S., industry performance is highly correlated with the strength of the housing market: a robust housing market usually means more new homes and an increased demand for wood products. 

For instance, Weyerhaeuser (the largest forest product company in the U.S.) experienced a sharp stock price drop as a result of the Great Recession and the collapsing housing market, from a high of $86 per share in early 2007 to a low of $15 per share in mid-2010.

U.S. revenues from forest products in 2019 totaled about $128 billion, and revenues from exports of forest products in 2019 totaled about $16 billion. Paper mills, which currently comprise the single largest segment of the U.S. forestry market, are forecast to see revenue decrease by -2.6% annually over the next five years. Sawmills and wood production, the second-largest segment, are forecast to see revenue increase by 1.1% annually over the next five years. 

The segment with the fastest projected growth is prefabricated home manufacturing (think mobile or modular homes), which is forecast to see revenue increase by only 2.2% annually over the next five years – a sharp decline from the 8.6% annual growth the segment saw during the previous five years.

Successfully investing in forestry involves understanding the underlying market forces driving industry performance and trends, while assessing the value of a mid or long-term stake in the industry relative to other, higher-performing industries.

How to invest in forestry

However, forestry is a legacy industry that is dominated by a few major players. That means investors have few choices when investing directly, and that fact puts them at risk in the case of an industry-wide downturn. Investing in forestry via related ETFs and mutual funds, though, allows investors to access the space without tying them to any one company. A search on Magnifi suggests there are a number of ways to gain access to this segment via these funds.

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