Ralph R. Stewart Jr. had been a Louisiana logger for decades before he became an iconic hope for resumption of large pine log shipments last year from the state to foreign markets.
Demand for domestic timber dropped dramatically, as home construction dwindled in the years after the nation’s slide into recession in late 2007.
Louisiana forest owners collected $558 million from timber sales that year, according to the Louisiana Forestry Association. Sales sank to a low of $338.9 million by 2009 and recovered to only $425 million by the end of 2013.
So, Stewart’s shipment last spring of more than 57,000 tons of logs from the Port of Greater Baton Rouge to Asian buyers was welcomed by both state officials and forest owners who hoped for a flood of foreign money into the state.
That, however, was before a second shipment of logs failed to develop last year. It also was before Stewart failed to pay the port more than $52,000 in billed wharfage fees and before the logger was accused of shooting a girlfriend in the face with a shotgun pistol.
Stewart, 43, of Holden, is fighting his charge of attempted second-degree murder in state district court in Baton Rouge, pleading not guilty in that case.
Also, a company he purchased land from in Port Allen to store and treat logs is trying to seize the property for alleged nonpayment of debt.
Now, state and industry officials say they know of no one who is promoting the sale of Louisiana’s pine logs to Asian markets.
In early 2014, Stewart appeared confident of success in the log export business. At a meeting with the commissioners of the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, Stewart said he was convinced Asian demand for Louisiana’s large pine logs was sufficient for him to send at least six packed freighters overseas annually.
There was no mention of a second shipment, however, in the wake of that first vessel’s departure.
Stewart paid $5,000 of $57,000 in wharfage fees billed by the port, on the Port Allen side of the Mississippi River across from Baton Rouge.
This month, the remaining $52,000 remained unpaid, said Jay Hardman, the port’s executive director.
No one had shipped logs out of the Port of Greater Baton Rouge for at least 15 years prior to Stewart’s venture, Hardman noted, and no one has shipped any since.
“We’ve had a few inquiries, but nothing has materialized,” Hardman said.
Joel Sanders is a Baton Rouge forester who has worked for various timber owners for decades.
Sanders said he has not heard of any forest owners who lost money on Stewart’s overseas shipment. He noted, though, that foreign markets are highly unpredictable.
“Those markets can come and go so abruptly, it’s hard to plan,” Sanders said. “That (Asian) market can end with one phone call.”
Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association, had a different view of Stewart’s first Asian shipment.
“That was great,” Vandersteen said. “It encouraged a lot of landowners to sell some of that larger timber.”
If the Asian market has cooled off, Vandersteen said, the cleared land now is available for new stands of timber that will feed growing demand for smaller logs.
Stewart shipped logs that were 16 inches in diameter or larger, Vandersteen said. Demand at the majority of sawmills in the U.S. today is for logs that range in diameter from 14 inches to 16 inches, at most, for lumber.
Stewart experienced problems while loading his logs into an ocean-going vessel, Vandersteen added. “They thought they would load this ship in three days. It took three weeks.”
That delay ate up much of Stewart’s profit, Vandersteen said.
Regardless of any problems that may have affected Stewart’s shipment, market forces ultimately will decide whether additional large logs will be shipped from Louisiana to foreign markets, according to an expert at LSU.
Richard P. Vlosky, director of the Louisiana Forest Products Development Center, said: “If domestic demand is low for the grades and species of logs sought in international markets, and the price point is advantageous, log exports will continue and even increase in the future.”
Vlosky also is the Crosby Land & Resources endowed professor of forest sector business development at the LSU AgCenter.
Stewart had financed the launch of his log export business.
On behalf of his company, he signed a promissory note for $1.75 million to buy land from Lafayette-based metals recycler Superior Baton Rouge LLC on U.S. 190 West, north of Port Allen, to treat and store logs in the months before his Asian shipment.
On Feb. 3, state District Judge James Best ordered the seizure and sale of Stewart’s Port Allen property. Best also granted Superior Baton Rouge permission to use Stewart’s unpaid purchase price as a credit against other possible bidders for the former scrap metal site.
Enforcement of court orders can be difficult, however. The West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office had not been able to serve Stewart notice of the seizure and sale last week. Deputies received court permission to serve the Secretary of State’s Office instead of Stewart and proceed with a June 3 sale.
Stewart could not be reached for comment. Repeated calls to a number he has used in the past were answered only by a recorded message: “The number you are trying to call is not reachable.”
Calls and emails seeking comment through Stewart’s attorneys in Albany were not returned.