The straight, long rows of tall and thin loblolly pine grow very fast in the South’s flat lands, especially compared to the slow-growing Douglas fir on steep Pacific Northwest slopes.
It’s just one of many differences that Travis Keatley (’99 Forest Mgmt.) has witnessed as he manages more than seven million acres of timber across 11 states for Weyerhaeuser.
As vice president of southern timberlands for the timber, land, and forest products company, Keatley works out of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and travels from Florida to Virginia to Louisiana, and all states in between, as he oversees Weyerhaeuser’s southeastern assets in one of the world’s most abundant source of timber.
Keatley, who grew up in Castle Rock about 50 miles from Mount St. Helens, was amazed at the rapid tree growth. “The growth rates in the South are really impressive,” he says. “You can almost see the trees grow. We can have five- and six-foot trees in some of our best conditions at year two. In the Pacific Northwest, it takes four or five years to do that.”
Keatley’s road to the South came as a surprise for him. After graduating from Washington State University, he had worked first on a research project in the Colville National Forest, then in silviculture for Weyerhaeuser in Longview. That led to management of tree farms and people near his hometown in southwestern Washington, where his family had lived for four generations.
In 2015, when his supervisor asked about his mobility and career path, Keatley didn’t expect an opportunity in Arkansas. Weyerhaeuser had merged with Plum Creek, and she asked Keatley about moving there to play a key role in the transition. “I told her, ‘I don’t know anything about the South. This is a little stretchy for me.’”
He talked with his wife Alicia ’99 and two young children, and they decided to take the leap. “It was a real hand wringer for us, but if we didn’t do this, would we regret it? We decided to think of it as an adventure.”
The move in 2016 has thrown significant challenges at Keatley, both professionally and personally.
The forests in the South, for example, are not only different species from the West, but their cultivation also varies. “The trees grow in a rotation closer to 25 years versus 45 in the West,” says Keatley. “The terrain is flat, so it’s very intensive and heavily mechanized silviculture. Some of our land we actually drop a plow and plant the trees on the berm to keep them up out of the low water table.”
Loblolly pine and other trees also require frequent thinning and pruning. The intensive management requires good timing and crisp execution, says Keatley. The timber can get stained blue because of the humidity and the temperature, so the logs have to be processed within three weeks of harvest.
“In the middle of summer, if you sever a tree from the stump, in a matter of weeks it’ll get this blue stain color to it from fungus. Nobody wants that discoloration,” he says.
The hot, sticky summers aren’t the only weather obstacle for Keatley and foresters. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and thunderstorms can wreak havoc on the trees and harvest roads. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 leveled about 200,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser forests.
“There was one period since I’ve been here where it rained 31 inches in 40 hours in Louisiana,” says Keatley, noting that the trees can drown without the berms to prevent water getting to them.
The Southern forests are home to a lot of fauna unfamiliar to Keatley, too. Chiggers and snakes, feral pigs and gopher tortoises live among the trees. “I’m not kidding about the snakes,” says Keatley. He points out that they typically wear snake leggings to avoid the bite of venomous rattlesnakes and cottonmouth during summer.
Due to a generally oversupplied market, the lumber market tends to be more dynamic there, he says. Trees grow so fast, the number of logs exceeds demand. “As long as you put the roots down and the green side up, it’s going to grow,” says Keatley. With demand steadily growing and continuing capital investments, the market’s improving.
Keatley says his WSU courses in silviculture and forestry economics from professors like Keith Blatner and Roger Chapman prepared him for directing such a wide expanse of timberlands. Even the move to college helped him in the transition.
“I remember being so scared leaving Castle Rock going to Pullman. It felt like it was a long way away,” he says, but it all worked out great. And, years later, “it helped me with my family’s move to Arkansas.”