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Opening New Niches in a Forested Landscape

Media Contact:
Jennifer Martin, (202) 720-8188

By Stacy Kish
August 3, 2009

Much of rural Alabama is a heavily forested landscape dominated by large paper mills and sawmills.  Scientists and architects from Auburn University are exploring ways to diversify this timber-based economy to generate new employment opportunities while improving the quality of rural housing in Alabama and elsewhere in the South. 

The Auburn team, led by rural sociologist Conner Bailey, identifies scale-appropriate harvesting and wood processing technologies, and uses locally produced lumber to build low-cost housing.  USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) is funding the project.

The need for a project such as this stems from the evolution of the forest products industry in the South.  “If you don’t have at least 50 acres of good timber, no commercial logger wants to even talk to you,” Bailey said.  “That was not the case 30 years ago, when logging operations were made up of small trucks and chain saws.  Today, loggers are heavily mechanized and it is expensive to move the equipment and set up operations.”  This expense compels loggers to direct their deliveries to large mills.

There are two consequences of this technological change:  many forestland owners have lost access to timber markets, and many rural communities no longer have a local source of lumber.  The Auburn project will address both problems.  For example, the availability of inexpensive portable sawmills creates new opportunities for the production of building material where it is needed.  The extension component of the Auburn project promotes adoption of these harvesting and wood processing technologies to generate income and produce affordable building materials.  Extension efforts are focused in rural areas that lack ready access to the major retail building supply stores that serve urban markets.

An important component of this integrated project is linkage to Auburn’s Rural Studio, a program of the College of Architecture.  Through this program, students learn to become “citizen architects,” using their talents to serve the needs of the rural poor.  During 2007-2008, students designed a house and built it using locally-harvested timber and a total material budget of approximately $10,000.  Next year, students with the Rural Studio are going to build on this experience and use local timber resources to construct a number of projects.  These projects provide both important learning opportunities for students and high quality, inexpensive housing for local residents in west Alabama, the poorest region of the state.

The work of Bailey and his colleagues will strengthen the availability of local resources to rural communities. By using local materials, residents can bolster economic development while improving their community.

CSREES funded this integrated research-extension-instructional project through the National Research Initiative Rural Development program. Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, CSREES focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people’s daily lives and the nation’s future. For more information, visit