August 2006
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In Alabama, Parnell Means Logging

by Alvin Benn

 
  Parnell Logging receives the 2006 Alabama Forestry Logger of the Year award (from left) Jeff, James, Jimmy, James Robert, Robin, Jodi, Joseph Parnell and Bill Howell.
Logging and "Parnell" just seem to go together in Alabama.

It’s been that way for more than a century, ever since members of the Parnell family launched operations in central Alabama forests with mules, wagons and backbreaking physical labor to haul timber to sawmills.

Technology has made logging much more sophisticated and the Parnells have helped lead the way in Alabama in the use of the latest timber "bells and whistles."

They continue to set the pace with expensive equipment and implementation of new techniques that have helped change the face of logging in Alabama.

 
The Parnell Brothers (from left) Joseph, Jeff and Jimmy.  
A few weeks ago, the Parnell Family was named "Loggers of the Year" during the annual meeting of the Alabama Forestry Association at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Montgomery.  They were nominated for this honor by Bill Howell of International Paper Co.

Accolades that have been bestowed on the Parnells aren’t taken lightly and family members continue to do what they’ve always done to knock down trees and take them to their buyers.

James H. Parnell, the patriarch of the family, is 62, but shows no signs of slowing down. In late June, he was inside the cab of his huge motorized vehicle—grabbing 75-foot-long logs with giant steel claws and then dropping them gently into one of 14 trucks owned by Parnell Inc., of which he’s the president.

 
  James H. Parnell, patriarch of the family, shows no signs of slowing down as he helps run his timber transfer equipment.
"I hope I can make it to 162," he said, with a laugh, after hopping down from the log loader in the woods about 25 miles west of Selma. "I feel like I’ve got 10 good years left in me right now."

From the looks of him, he may have a lot more than that. He’s as solid as a rock from years of lifting, hauling and walking through the woods.

Jimmy Parnell, vice president of the company, has a college degree to augment his "on-the-job training" in the Black Belt forests where his father would take him as a little boy.

A 1985 graduate of Auburn University, Parnell, 42, works closely with two younger brothers—Jeff and Joseph—to keep the family operation moving swiftly and efficiently.

In the "old days," the Parnells handled most of the work by themselves. Today, the family is responsible for more than 40 employees, making it one of the largest logging operations in Alabama. The average logging business has five or six people.

The Parnells pay good wages and provide benefits that include medical protection and even a profit sharing plan.

That’s a long way from the early 1960s when the family launched the "modern" phase of its logging business with a small truck, a team of mules and other basics to get started.

The family’s timber connection actually dates back to the late 1800s, but its modern success story is nearly 50 years old.

Parnell Inc., based in the tiny Chilton County town of Stanton, now has computerized equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and machinery unheard of when the business began.

"You can look at $2.5 million worth of equipment around us right now," said Jimmy Parnell, as he pointed to a Feller Buncher, delimber, hoist machine and other equipment that make the woods more profitable and safer than ever.

No one yells "TIMBER!!!" in the Parnell family these days. That’s probably because there is no need for anybody with a chainsaw to topple a tree. Expensive motorized equipment can slice through the trunk of a pine or oak in a nanosecond—like a hot knife through a block of butter.

Not long after the trees are downed, a delimber picks them up and prepares them for transportation to International Paper Co.’s sawmill in Maplesville.

A load of logs on one of the Parnell trucks can be worth $1,200—reason enough to get them to the IP plant as quickly as possible. Delays mean money and the Parnells see to it that everything runs as smoothly as possible.

During his escorted tour through the woods a few weeks ago, Jimmy Parnell watched as his workers hammered at a hydraulic cylinder that had developed a leak—slowing progress on a piece of equipment for much of the day.

"We ought to have a load leaving every 20 to 30 minutes and we haven’t been able to take one out yet," said Parnell, as he watched his men work on the cylinder and mentally calculated how much it was costing his company at the same time. "I’m not worried, though. It’s happened before and we’ve always fixed our problems."

Parnell Inc. takes advantage of every new wrinkle available in logging. Instead of calling it quits at night, crews stay at it, thanks to Northern Lighting equipment attached to the logging equipment.

"We work 20 hours a day," said Jimmy Parnell. "In Canada they work 24 hours a day. Working at night is unique to the South, but not up there."

No trees are cut at night, but Parnell crews find enough to do to keep them busy into the wee hours of the morning.

In addition to providing for their families and their employees, the Parnells are also responsible stewards of the land from which they draw their main cash crop.

Instead of having to wait 40 years for a stand of trees to mature for cutting, the time lapse has been cut in half and that means millions of dollars for the companies that cut them.

The Parnells buy their seedlings from International Paper Co. and plant them in areas where the cuttings have been made. The seedlings, about a foot tall, are planted by hand.

"We can plant about 500 seedlings to the acre," Parnell said, adding his company wouldn’t be in business very long if they cut down all the trees and didn’t replant. "The trees will come back. We’re seeing to it."

Helping them do just that is the Central Alabama Farmers Cooperative in Selma, of which Jimmy Parnell is a member of the board of directors.

"The Co-op is very important to us," he said. "We buy fuel tanks and other supplies for our timber and cattle operations. They have a very good operation there in Selma."

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.