Gray Skipper

Meet Gray



Fourth-generation landowner Gray Skipper oversees an integrated Alabama family forest business and has challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of critical habitat for the black pinesnake.

This article was first published in the Sept/Oct. 2021 issue of Forest Landowner Magazine and was written by Pete Williams, editor.

Gray Skipper is charging uphill. It’s an hour before sunset on a toasty evening in late June and the 50-year-old vice president of Scotch Plywood
and father of three is dispelling any lingering notions a Forest Landowner magazine editor might have about whether south Alabama forestland has hills.

It doesn’t matter that Skipper, a fourth-generation member of a forestry business dating to 1902, spent a long afternoon in the Clarke County woods showing the editor parts of the “Scotch” family’s 190,000 acres. Skipper has plenty left in the tank, and not just the Chevy Silverado parked back at his family’s hunting camp.

Skipper told the editor to come prepared for a hike and maintains a relentless space up steep forest roads while providing insight into passing trees, history on his family’s six generations of integrated forest operations, and commentary on the lawsuit he and the Forest Landowners Association filed in late February challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of critical habitat for the black pinesnake.

The editor is thankful for a background in fitness. The toughest workout he’s done in jeans comes to a merciful end after three miles at the family hunting camp, followed by a hearty dinner of beef short ribs on polenta prepared by Skipper’s son Edward, a recent Auburn forestry grad.
“We enjoy what we do,” said Skipper, cracking open a drink alongside older brother George, who also is involved in management of the land. “It’s been a busy year.”

Indeed. While much of the country spent January 6 focused on protesters at the U.S. Capitol, firefighters were battling a devastating fire at the Scotch Plywood plant in Waynesboro, Mississippi. (See related story, page 24). On Feb. 26, Skipper and FLA filed the pinesnake suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

The complaint explained how the Skipper family has owned and managed working timberland in Clarke County for generations, serving as active stewards of the land and maintaining forest health and native habitat. From 1956 to 2016, the Skippers participated in Alabama’s Wildlife Management Area (WMA) program, opening the land for public recreation and the state’s wildlife conservation efforts.

In 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the land as critical habitat for the black pinesnake, imposing significant regulatory burdens on the Skippers and reducing the land’s value. The Service made this designation despite the Skipper family’s objections, evidence suggesting that the black pinesnake does not occupy their land, and the challenges such designations create for landowners like the Skipper family who actively steward land to conserve forest habitat.

The designation of thousands of acres of private land was based on the isolated sightings of the pinesnake. In designating one area as critical habitat, the Service based its decision on a single sighting of the snake the preceding 20 years. For the four related “Scotch” families, including the Skippers, that put 30,000 acres in jeopardy. “If you want to catch a black pinesnake in Alabama, you can go to the west end of the Mobile airport where there are pecan orchards,” Skipper says.“They’ve never been around here.”

The Service declined to consider the economic impact of the designation on the Skipper family and similar landowners, despite Congress requiring it to do so under both the Endangered Species Act and the Regulatory Flexibility Act. Because of these substantial harms to the Skipper family and other forest landowners, the complaint argued, the Service’s unlawful and arbitrary critical habitat designation should be vacated.

Not surprisingly, the Scotch families removed their land from Alabama’s WMA program. “It’s ridiculous,” says Skipper, who blames a lot of the saga on bureaucracy run amok and a lack of communication between officials in Mississippi and Alabama.“We’re staunch private property advocates and from ou standpoint, it seemed grossly unfair because we’re doing a lot of the activities that are very beneficial for the land and wildlife and yet we get penalized with overregulation.”

As CEO of the Forest Landowners Association, which joined Skipper as a party to the suit, Scott Jones fights for landowners caught in the middle of the critical habitat issue. It’s part of several catch-22s with the government. On one hand, forest landowners are expected to grow trees on long
rotations for greater carbon capture and wildlife habitat. But if they do so, they run the risk of more regulation with endangered
species and lost income by losing sawtimber to natural disasters.

“Landowners will change the way they manage forests based on legislation and laws that are passed,” Jones said. “If you regulate the black pinesnake, which only likes longleaf pine, landowners won’t grow it. If you tell landowners that if your trees are blown down by hurricanes and casualty loss is zero, they will grow to lower rotation age to minimize risk; they don’t blow over as often.

“If the government is trying to convince landowners to grow trees longer because they sequester more carbon and provide an open canopy for more species of wildlife but we regulate them if they grow them longer and taller, providing healthy ecosystems – everything the environmental community and government wants to incentivize – you create disincentive by creating risk. Here you have one arm of the government saying ‘we want to have all this longleaf,’ but then you have the Fish and Wildlife Service put a target on your back by saying you will get regulated. Landowners will just cut it all down. Why would I plant this? It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Pay us to sequester carbon, create favorable ecosystems for certain species. Don’t punish us. For landowners like Gray, their job is to manage around that risk just as they have for generations.”

Indeed, the wood-paneled hallways of the Scotch Plywood offices in Fulton, Alabama, are lined with framed black-and-white photos tracing the company’s origins back more than a century. There are images of rugged loggers toiling when the profession was more dangerous and logs
were more challenging to transport.

Fulton, originally known as Wade’s Station, developed in the 1880s along the Mobile-to-Birmingham Railroad. That railway attracted lumbermen
from the north including Marcus Behrman, who in 1888 established the Virgin Pine Lumber Co., which produced shingles and provided lumber, and the town became known as “Behrman.” In 1889, Scotchman Alexander McTaggert bought the company and established Scotch Lumber
Co. He sold the company in 1896 to a group from Fulton, New York that renamed the Behrman Post Office, and thus the town,
in honor of their native city.

The modern Scotch story starts on March 5, 1902, when William Dwight “Will” Harrigan and his Wisconsin colleague, Fred Herrick, bought Scotch Lumber. Harrigan had worked as a logging contractor and Herrick ran a sawmill. Harrigan ran the company until his death in 1919 and since his son Billy was just 10 at the time, Harrigan’s widow Helen Katherine “Nell” Gray Harrigan ran the company until her passing in 1943.

Nell navigated Scotch through a massive flood in 1927, the Great Depression, and a 1931 fire that burned most of the mill to the ground. Along the way, the Harrigans became sole owners of the mill.

Billy Harrigan and his sister, Virginia Gray Harrigan O’Melia, formed the second generation of the “Scotch” family forest business. In 1964, the same year the first plywood mill began operation in the Southeast, the Harrigan and O’Melia families began construction of a plywood mill just north of the Scotch Lumber Co. mill in Fulton. They produced the first plywood panel east of the Mississippi River in August of 1965.

As demand increased for plywood, Scotch expanded its timber procurement area in 1969 by constructing a veneer mil with a log yard 60 miles west in Waynesboro, Mississippi. In 1979, the company added a veneer mill with a log yard and dryer in Beatrice, Alabama.

Billy Harrigan’s children (Dwight Harrigan and Kay Harrigan Woods) and Virginia O’Melia’s kids (Helen Gray O’Melia Skipper and Thomas O’Melia, Jr.) became the business’s third generation and formed the four “Scotch” families today: Harrigan, Woods, Skipper, and O’Melia. Gray Skipper (full name
Thomas Gray Skipper), is the second of four sons of George Skipper III and the late Helen O’Melia Skipper.

The families work together and separately. The O’Melia, Skipper, and Woods families own Scotch Plywood. The four families collectively own the 190,000 acres of forestland in southwest Alabama, in Clarke County. The Harrigans and O’Melias owned part of Scotch Gulf Lumber, including three
sawmills, until selling to British Columbia-based Canfor Corp, in 2013.

Gray Skipper grew up in the woods and as a kid took informal forestry classes (Camp Mac) with cousins and second cousins taught by E.P. “Mac”
McMillan, Chief Forester for Scotch families. After Skipper spent several teenage summers working for Leroy Farms in nearby Leroy, Alabama, he figured the family business might be a better option and enrolled at Auburn. He graduated with a forestry degree and since 1994 has worked for Scotch, first at the Beatrice veneer mill as a log buyer and then working his way up to Vice President.

This year’s mill fire was a setback, but every onsite employee, many of whom helped fight the fire, was accounted for and found unharmed. Within a week after the blaze, nearly 100 percent of employees chose to be reassigned to the Beatrice facility and Scotch provided the transportation. The Waynesboro plant is being rebuilt and the startup date coincides closely with the first anniversary of the fire in January.

Driving through Clarke County with Skipper in his Silverado, we see vast stretches of what most forest landowners would consider mature, ready-to-cut sawtimber. That’s because Scotch manages 43-year rotations to produce plywood and poles. That requires planting 726 seedlings per acre, far more than most landowners install for a 30-year rotation, conducting three thinnings, and generating lots of pulpwood. That volume might be an issue in many parts of the country with little market for pulpwood, but not in south Alabama where multiple mills provide enough competition for pulpwood to command highly
competitive prices.

“Scotch is one of the few vertically integrated forest products companies,” Skipper says. “We can weather markets for wood better than most and it allows us to grow a product longer than most people. We can grow a product for a mill that we own but in terms of planting, we can plant more trees per acre than the industry standard. We’re blessed to be in a very good pulp market and we try to get three thinnings out of it because that gives you cash flow over 40 years.”

The management does not just happen. Scotch Land Management, LLC’s (SLM) forester for the Harrigan and Skipper Properties, John Gates, plays an integral part in growing the timber. Paul Padgett is in charge of all Scotch family hunting leases. The Harrigan family’s Fulton Logging Company is the
primary harvester on the Skipper properties. SLM’s dedicated staff keeps the silvicultural, GIS, and general land ownership responsibilities fulfilled.
“It takes a team and we have a very dedicated team,” says Skipper.

Throughout the afternoon, we see more old-growth pine, breathtaking views of loblolly growing on rolling hills, and, perhaps most remarkably, a 12-foot waterfall and swimming hole. We also stop at a longleaf stand, not part of the property the Fish & Wildlife Service designated among the 300,000 acres of critical habitat for the black pinesnake, but the appropriate setting for a discussion of the lawsuit.

The seeds of Skipper’s involvement in FLA and the suit were planted in 2015 when he attended FLA’s national conference in Virginia Beach, where FLA met with representatives of the Fish & Wildlife Association. Skipper sat in on the meeting and remembers the discussion turning to streamside management zones (SMZs) and appropriate buffers. A landowner brought up the voluntary individual state best management practices (BMPs), generally 35 feet and Skipper saw a young Service staffer write down “100 feet will be better.”

“They did not know what the acronyms stood for and they are the ones formulating the regulations,” said Skipper, who joined FLA shortly thereafter. “That was eye-opening to realize you have to be at the table if you’re a forest landowner. If you’re not at the table, you don’t have a say.”

“They did not know what the acronyms stood for and they are the ones formulating the regulations,” said Skipper, who joined FLA shortly thereafter. “That was eye-opening to realize you have to be at the table if you’re a forest landowner. If you’re not at the table, you don’t have a say.”

Skipper points up to the longleaf canopy towering above us. He notes that the language in the pinesnake ruling says a stand cannot be harvested below 50 percent of the longleaf canopy.

“That’s a very strange concept to foresters,” he says, again bemoaning the bureaucracy and inconsistencies of government agencies.
The following morning, we’re back in the Silverado heading from the hunting camp to the Scotch offices. We pass miles of forestland owned by Scotch families and Skipper chuckles when asked if any of it has development potential. Fulton had a population of 272 in 2010, down slightly from 2000. That doesn’t mean any of the land couldn’t one day be development land or used for anything else, at least if allowed by the government.

“My grandchildren’s generation might see the demand for a distribution or data center,” said Skipper, circling back to the critical habit acreage discussion. “You never know. That’s why we will continue to fight this and keep our eyes open. The way we do things today is not the same as it was two generations ago. We’ve learned that we have to be active on these national issues and being aligned with groups of similar-thinking
people like FLA, we’re much more likely to achieve a positive outcome.”