Mark Wirick eases his truck down a dirt road in the pre-dawn hours, parting walls of longleaf pines on both sides.
He heads east toward the orange glow of daylight, deep into the Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area just north of the Florida-Georgia state line above Tallahassee.
His black Labrador retriever, Rip, sniffs the waking air from his crate as Mark slows and parks his Ford F-150 where it will stay for the next 10 hours while he cruises timber for the Department of Natural Resources, until dark sends him home to Monticello and his wife, Brenda.
In this near-holy moment, Mark, 58, offers access into his solitary world of cruising timber. He dons chaps for snake protection and a frayed utility vest that holds sundry tools and gadgets, then attaches his tablet to his belt, grabs his plot center staff and heads into the trees.
Florida timber country stretches the length of the state line and reaches down to Orlando. According to the Florida Forestry Association, there are more than 17 million acres of forest in the state. Most of that land comprises working forests of pine.
The World Resources Institute defines working forests as “forests that are actively managed to generate revenue from multiple sources, including sustainably produced timber and other ecosystem services, and thus are not converted to other land uses such as residential development.”
Timber cruisers are experts who evaluate forests, examining the health, age, height and density of trees. Cruisers are on staff at land and timber companies or work as individual contractors, as Mark does.
“I’ve cruised timber from Jacksonville to Pensacola and take contracts out of state,” Mark says. “I work for timber companies, real estate developers, government and wildlife management organizations.
“Between here (Monticello) and Lake City, there are maybe 10 individual timber cruisers doing this same contract work. There is more work here than there are people to do it.”
Timber cruisers evaluate specific sections within a forest stand, called plots, that are designated by a client and located with satellite-informed software. Mark must analyze and report on four items at each plot, providing information on the ground story, regeneration, midstory and overstory of a specific area of trees.
Clients usually order a check cruise to ensure the original assessment nailed the correct plots and the numbers look right. Mark does that type of work, too.
He is accurate and fast, and often must turn down work because he is a one-man show. Good help is hard to find.
“Mark’s friends in the industry call him super cruiser,” says his wife, Brenda Bentley Wirick, a seasoned educator. “He’s pretty darn good at what he does, though it’s hard to explain exactly what he does.”
The couple go way back, though they have been married just seven years. Mark is a fifth-generation Monticellan. His family name is on a local street, and the 1831 Wirick Simmons house now serves as a museum and headquarters for the Jefferson County Historical Association.
Brenda’s grandparents owned a nursery on Highway 90 just west of town.
The two dated in high school, went separate ways in college, then reconnected decades later. They hunt, fish and kayak together. Most hours off the clock are spent outdoors. The Ford truck’s tags read NSHOR—a nod to their love of fishing.
Rip’s name stands for “rest in peace”—tongue-in-cheek in memoriam of the ducks killed each season. The dog’s pedigree name is Ring-necks’ Last Ride.
The Wiricks spend Sunday evenings grilling in their barn. Brenda randomly gifts friends with fresh trout, flounder or redfish, expertly filleted and accompanied by cooking tips.
They are Gators in Seminole country. Brenda graduated from Florida State University but says she has always felt more at home in Gainesville’s swamp. Mark has a forestry degree from the University of Florida—he wears his university ring with the forestry emblem on his right hand even when working—but says the degree is not a requirement to cruise timber.
“My forestry degree taught me not to do this but to manage forests,” he says. “The knowledge from my degree does help clients, though, because I can identify other trees and animal habitats in the plot, so they know what they have.”
Mark analyzes the health and stages of ambient species as well, and identifies burn areas and time frames of those burns.
His eyes climb an oak with some green leaves, but his quick assessment determines it has seen better days.
“That live oak is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet,” Mark says, noting what only a trained eye sees: The green is just artifact—the last hurrah from a once-healthy tree.
Years of experience in local companies and on North Florida land gives Mark an advantage not learned in a formal education program. He says he can tell what a job will be like and how the plots will look before even arriving to a site because he knows which companies manage their land well and which do not.
Mark says he has learned humans are much more worrisome than any animal he might encounter, and how to be alone with himself all day, days on end, sometimes weeks at a time.
“If you let yourself, you can spend a whole day alone with that one thing that’s really bothering you stuck in your head,” he says.
Mark has worked at a chip mill and a containerboard manufacturer. He cut lightning strike areas on plantations, had a logging crew and owned a hardware store in Monticello that was a victim of 2008’s Great Recession. He is now in his 12th year of cruising timber as an individual contractor and says it is a solitary job that has served him well.
“My kids were small when I got divorced,” Mark says. “Because I’m a contractor and work alone, I can choose what jobs I take. It worked out. I never missed a game, and I was always able to be there for my kids.”
On a late January day, Mark finishes 30 of the roughly 60 plots on this job. The following week he heads to Savannah, then back to Jackson County and home.
By late morning, Mark has circled back to his truck. He sheds a layer of clothing, then heads out in another direction, tablet bouncing off his thigh, staff in hand, Rip trotting just a little ways ahead. A sharp veer left into the trees, and he is gone.