Westervelt Explorations and Reflections: A Forestland Legacy Story

March 7, 2017

Along Alabama State Route 69, from Jasper south to near Northport, forests dominate the landscape. We navigated rolling hills, long-abandoned, worn out and eroded, former agricultural land. Frequent vistas afford great views of the mixed pine/hardwood forests across local relief of a couple hundred feet vertical. Some of the timberlands appear intensively managed, ranging from recent harvests already site-prepared and planted, to 20-plus-year-old loblolly plantations. Within 15 miles of Northport we encountered stands heavy to Virginia pine, a species I misidentified from my windshield cruise that late evening as a very dwarf-needled shortleaf pine. My Westervelt hosts the next morning set me straight; I had remembered Virginia pine’s range ending further north. My junior-year dendrology textbook just confirmed a species range map extending Virginia pine into this part of Alabama. Forgive me, I took the course 46 years ago, and I was driving at dusk!

An Incredible Day in the Field

My Westervelt hosts picked me up during morning rains from my hotel. The four of us drove to the nursery and seed orchard, where we met with four additional professionals. We viewed recently collected pollen, carefully sorted and cataloged by source tree, drying in climate controlled chambers. We opened coolers storing likewise catalogued seed bags, destined within the next few weeks for sowing this coming season’s crop of some seven million containerized seedlings. The center-pivot fertigation system walks around the ready-for-action seedling production tables nearby. April through November, these nearly three acres of elevated production tables will buzz. This, my hosts assured me, is state-of-the-art containerized nursery production.

Within a few hundred yards, many orchard trees were in full elegance, some decorated with hundreds of flower bags, each bag covering at least three female flowers, isolating them from the ambient pollen cloud. At the moment of maximum receptivity, technicians will pneumatically inject collected pollen from a single source tree (for a controlled cross and then research field testing) or a blend from multiple selections (for operational seed production). Flowers pollinated this spring will provide the seed for container-sowing next March.

Adjacent to the seed orchard we examined a six-year-old NC State University Tree Improvement Cooperative loblolly pine out-planting of some 100 individual crosses (randomized block design) from across the southeast. Already we could see tremendous variation in height, form, and diameter among the trees. Yield in this fourth-generation improvement lot will be more than double the original non-improved wild collections.

All this science is fine, yet that is what I expected. I knew from a prior visit 4-6 years ago, that the technology was advancing rapidly, and that this company would stay abreast, and operate at the industry’s cutting edge. I knew that containerized production would now be operational. I saw a young, then pre-production 2005 orchard that I correctly anticipated would now be producing seed. I recalled from that earlier visit that Westervelt hired and retained only the best. That reality today was even more striking! Technologically and scientifically sound beyond expectation. Yet what impressed me most is that each person exhibited palpably a commitment and drive that are passion-fueled, purpose-driven, and results-oriented.

To a person, they embraced my own view of their trade as a calling. The Westervelt Way epitomizes my own staunch belief that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by nature. They recognize and embrace the notion that Westervelt forestry and natural resources management are as much art as science. Their eyes are wide open; little escapes them. These are my kind of people — this is my kind of company! Westervelt’s natural resources professionals actually LOOK – they are not blinded by externalities and distractions. They SEE the entire literal and metaphorical ecosystem within which they operate. They see deeply enough to FEEL the passion and purpose, leading them and the Westervelt Company to ACT. What impressive camaraderie and commitment to shared goals and cause. I applaud the approach and philosophy – The Westervelt Way!

We also visited a plantation about to enter its fourth growing season – herbicide treated, burned, planted to a single loblolly family. With banded herbaceous application, post-planting, this stand was about to fully capture the site. I wanted to sit quietly and watch it burst into full-growth mode. The field forester told the site’s story with verbal agility and deep zeal. These folks CARE! A bit further down the same county road, we stopped briefly at a 13-year-old loblolly stand thinned recently by removing every third row and reducing stem count within the remaining two rows. The crew removed roughly half the basal area. I was ready to employ my sense of hearing – I observed that by early June we would hear them growing in response to their new-found release to capitalize on site resources. The hearing part – only a bit of a stretch!

I’ll note that forestry is all about amending and channeling site productive capacity to the crops and amenities we wish to favor. The Westervelt Way in that respect is a joy to behold.

Reaching Beyond the Tale of Westervelt’s First Century

After a quick stop at another regeneration site, this one about to enter growing season number two, we headed back toward Tuscaloosa, spirits remaining sky high. I wanted to bottle the sense of pride and commitment – for the land, for the 133-year-old company, and for The Westervelt Way, a palpable corporate conservation philosophy that infects the entire team. I wanted to plead that my hosts invite me back every quarter – at a minimum. I wanted to immediately begin learning, and then preserving the Story that is Westervelt today, to take the tale 33 years forward from the first-century book that Chairman Jack Warner published in 1984.

In his 1984 Preface to Progress, Mr. Warner wrote of those imploring him to record the Gulf States Paper story “as a record of a bygone era. Often they would add that if I did not do so quickly, the story might never be told.” He observed that the archives, “the bare bones of the salient facts were there, but the underlying rationales were missing, as were the spirit, the life, the essence of what-made-it-all-tick. There was no color, no personality.” He closed the Preface with, “it is a very remarkable story, indeed – one that needed to be told as a record of a fast disappearing era.”

Mr. Warner recently passed away, just shy of his 100th birthday, having lived, learned, served, and led across his own century. The Company has now marked a third of its second century, some 33 years since Progress. Mr. Warner’s Foreword offered deep wisdom, “Progress is especially poignant to us today because of our nation’s present awareness of ecology and industry’s acknowledged awareness of social responsibility. Today, conservation – the wise use of our natural resources – is as fully important as wise preservation – the safekeeping of our nation’s important records and symbols of goals and accomplishments. Both the goals and accomplishments are evidence of the moral and spiritual attitudes and values that were the cornerstones of America’s greatness.”

Just 33 years since Progress appeared, our global population has grown from 4.8 to 7.5 billion, a fifty percent increase. The conservation and social responsibility imperatives are expanding nearly exponentially. Perhaps there is no better time than now to chronicle and update the continuing “record of a fast disappearing era.” It is noteworthy that we stand at this one-third-century mark, a natural milepost. In no small part, the timing is poignant — to acknowledge, memorialize, and celebrate Mr. Warner and the family’s fidelity to a land and social ethic. The ethic remains deeply embedded and transcends the passage of time from post-Civil War into the 21st Century. The advance rate of natural resource stewardship art and science, like global population growth, is accelerating exponentially.

Mr. Warner emphasized the Company’s leadership and employees as he wrapped up the Foreword, “Our people have always worked together, it’s a great team effort. It always has been, and still is, a family of people exemplifying the ideals that made America great.” The team hosting me may not have carried the Westervelt or Warner surnames, yet in every respect, they are family. They exemplify the attitude, ethic, and spirit that have kept Gulf States and now Westervelt at the cutting edge of conservation and social responsibility.

I left Union Camp Corporation, a then sister forest products manufacturing company to Gulf States, in 1984, tracking me into higher education for that same one-third century since then. Before my redirection, I was Alabama Land Manager, responsible for 320,000 acres of fee-owned forestland, mostly south of Gulf States’ Alabama land base. As I reflect on the practices we employed and the technology we applied then, I can see that the art and science of forestry have evolved rapidly, yes exponentially. Today’s Westervelt team employs computers at every level, as well as LIDAR and drones, and even applies sonic diagnostic tools to assess wood quality of standing trees. The list of advances extends well beyond those.

The myriad facts and data will exist forever – not in the pollen cloud, but in the iCloud. The “bare bones of the salient facts” will be there,” but what about “the underlying rationales… the spirit, the life, the essence of what-made-it-all-tick.” Will there be color and personality? Mr. Warner’s 1984 observations still apply today, “it is a very remarkable story, indeed.” It is one that needs to be told as a record of what we can never permit to be “a fast disappearing era.” The deep land and social responsibility ethic exemplified by the Company and its remarkable family (both literal and metaphorical), must be an emerging norm, an exemplar for other businesses, industries, organizations, and citizens to model.

My Great Blue Heron, LLC, seeks to help others adopt and practice what Gulf States and Westervelt have embraced faithfully since 1884:

Great Blue Heron Core Values

Great Blue Heron (excerpted from my web site: stevejonesgbh.com) assists enterprises anchored in personal integrity and professional ethics. We will help you understand and embrace environmental stewardship and selfless service if those two essential values are not already front and center for you.

  • Responsible Earth Stewardship – your enterprise is a citizen of Planet Earth. GBH works with enterprises who accept and embrace, or are willing to open your eyes to this fundamental value.
  • Intelligent Tinkering – a value that is ecosystem based. We must recognize that all things are interconnected and interdependent; know the consequences and implications of all actions.
  • Doing Good by Doing Well – a value that recognizes our obligation to the greater good now and into the deep future. It involves performing well enough to give back and pay forward. Great Blue Heron works only with enterprises that accept such an obligation for doing good.
  • Sustainability – leaving a world that can provide a future undiminished from the one we occupy. This value recognizes that we have an obligation to future generations.
  • Triple Bottom Line – Making a financial profit is necessary, yet not sufficient.

GBH helps clients understand the environmental and societal bottom lines along with the financial. Managing the financials and generating a fiscal profit is necessary, but not sufficient for our clients. They want to achieve net profit along all three bottom lines.

The Westervelt Company doesn’t need my help to perpetuate The Westervelt Way. Okay, perhaps I can assist the Company at the margins. However, my vision reaches beyond this one firm. Mr. Warner spoke passionately and eloquently of the “moral and spiritual attitudes and values that were the cornerstone of America’s greatness.” I am convinced that he dreamed of that essential thread weaving into tomorrow and beyond, and extending across business and society. My Great Blue Heron Mission is to “apply lessons written in or inspired by Nature to achieve enterprise success.” The GBH vision is to ensure that “clients will perform better (financially, socially, and environmentally), understand more clearly their Earth home, and embrace the tenets of responsible Earth Stewardship.” I believe that Mr. Warner would have embraced both the mission and the vision.

The Westervelt Company walks the talk and models the way – The Westervelt Way. The Westervelt Company tag line alone says it all: “We are stewards, and we’re about the land.” The imperative now to capture the Story that is Westervelt is not to do so “as a record of a bygone era.” Instead, the impetus driving, fueling, and propelling me is to tell the Story now and to do it so compellingly that others see the light and adopt The Westervelt Way.

The result would be the Westervelt Forestland Legacy Story