News Timber Titans: Three Generations Talk Family, Forestry And Future

Timber Titans: Three Generations Talk Family, Forestry And Future

Timber Titans: Three Generations Talk Family, Forestry And Future
October 31, 2016 |

Elmo Ziebach’s mother was determined her only son would earn a college diploma.

“She didn’t give me much of a choice (about going to college),” said Elmo, a 1969 Auburn University (AU) forest management graduate.

Three generations of Ziebachs, two bobtail short wood trucks and Auburn University’s School of Forestry later, Thelma Ziebach’s legacy lives on in Monroe County.

Today, the 69-year-old co-owner of Ziebach & Webb Timber Co., Inc. is semi-retired but visits the company’s office in Peterman to keep an eye on the business and manage the family’s timberland.

The timber — and paper — industry is in the Ziebach family blood. Elmo’s father worked for the Mobile Press Register newspaper. Elmo’s son, Douglas Ziebach, graduated from AU’s School of Forestry in 1995 in forest resources, and Chase Luker, Elmo’s grandson, received his AU forestry degree in 2014.

When Douglas was in the sixth grade, his class left last will and testaments to younger students. His testament? To follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I’m the only one in my class that did what I said I wanted to,” said Douglas, 47, who grew up painting land lines, planting pine trees and marking and cruising timber with his dad, Elmo.

Luker was raised the same way.

“One way or another, I was going to be in the wood business,” said Luker, 26. “Even on my dad’s side of the family, every male older than me was somehow in the timber business.”

Although the Ziebach family’s passion for timber is unchanged, the industry constantly evolves.

When Elmo and business partner Mike Webb began Ziebach & Webb in 1979 with two bobtail short wood trucks, one crew hauled around 150 cords — or 375 tons — of timber each week.

Now, three-man crews haul 2,000-plus tons weekly.

Modern crews replaced old-school chainsaws with feller bunchers, harvesters rapidly cutting and gathering several trees before they’re stacked for further processing. And air-conditioned machinery makes long days easier for workers.

“Even rain doesn’t affect us as much as it used to,” Elmo said. “If a crew gets 2 inches of rain, they don’t even knock off early.”

In the ‘70s, short wood pulpwood was the name of the game. Loading individual logs to be trucked to the rail yard was a time-consuming process. Most timber tracts were small, natural and owned by small-scale landowners.

“Then, it wasn’t that hard to get a small business going,” said Elmo, who moved to Monroe County in 1972. “There were nine different paper mills owned by nine different owners in a 100-mile radius.”

Today, three of those mills are closed, and two companies own the others.

Ziebach & Webb has grown to 25 employees, 12 of whom are Auburn University graduates and registered foresters.

“When my father started out, timber was all natural growth,” Douglas said. “Now, timber is all cut in plantations on a 20- to 25-year rotation. If the timber has been managed, it’s been clear cut and replaced.”

Ziebach & Webb manages around 20 crews from central Alabama to the Florida Panhandle that annually deliver 1.5 million tons of raw material to paper and pulp mills. They also manage timberland and own a contract wood yard.

“We work like family,” Douglas said. “Some loggers have worked 30+ years with our family. They’ve never worked for anyone but us.”

For every ton of timber harvested each year, 1.55 tons of new growth is added to Alabama’s forests, according to Forest Inventory & Analysis data. That doesn’t happen overnight.

“To grow more timber than you cut, you have to intensively manage the forests,” Luker said.

As the timber industry adopted new production techniques, communication changed, too.

During Douglas’s childhood, Elmo took the landline phone off the hook at supper for uninterrupted family time.

“When you have a small business, you don’t leave it when you go home,” Douglas said. “Today’s technology is good and bad because you’re never away from it.”

Luker interned with the family business each summer during college and brought home tech-savvy skills in 2014. For example, instead of printing maps before cruising timber, Luker pulls out his smartphone and maps the location on Google Earth.

Elmo, Douglas and Luker are one of the first – if not the first – three-generation AU School of Forestry graduates. Several professors who taught Elmo also taught Douglas. The same was true for Luker.

Luker hopes his son, Chapman, will carry on the legacy of his father, great-grandfather, uncle – and great-great-grandmother Thelma, which pleases Elmo.

“Who knows what’ll happen in the next 20 years?” Elmo asked. “But, it’s my dream that the family business will continue as long as the next generation wants it to.”

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