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‘It keeps you busy’: Decades managing East Texas forests connect alumnus with the land

It’s been 40 years since Rex Benham (BSFR ’82) traded the rolling hills of Georgia with the open skies of East Texas, but he feels he got a good deal in the end.

“Texas isn’t all that different from Georgia,” says Benham, who manages about 240,000 acres of pine stands for Resource Management Service LLC (RMS) as an area manager. “I get back to Georgia every so often to visit family, but I like Texas just fine.”

A native of Cartersville, Georgia, Benham grew up camping and fishing with his family around Lake Allatoona. Spending time in the outdoors made an impression, because when it came time to apply for college, Benham decided a degree in forestry was the way to go. He ended up at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources after his older brothers, who were already attending UGA, assured him they would show him the ropes on campus.

Even as a new student, Benham had a plan. He’d done some research, he says, and was familiar with a paper mill near his hometown. “When I told people I was going to Georgia and majoring in forestry, the first thing that came to their mind was, say, a park ranger. But private industry was the way I wanted to go,” says Benham. He was also aware of the job opportunities in his hometown, where carpet manufacturing dominates, and knew that wasn’t for him. “I figured, if I’m going to work hard, I might as well do something I enjoy doing.”

Benham came to Warnell focused on his studies and future career, but as it happens, his acceptance into the program also marked a first for Warnell: Benham was the first African American to receive his bachelor’s degree from the school.

There was no celebration, no speech, not even an edition of Warnell’s yearbook, the Cypress Knee, to mark the occasion (the book was put on hiatus several years earlier). But at the same time, that’s not exactly Benham’s style; even today, when talking about the milestone, he remains modest.

“I’m just a guy,” he says, speaking by phone from his truck stopped on the side of an East Texas road.

Instead, Benham would rather talk about the thousands of acres of trees he manages. He’s an expert—he’s been taking care of the forests in those parts since his first job out of Warnell.

The job market in 1982 was rough, to put it nicely. Benham had interviewed three or four places when his Warnell advisor urged him to apply for a position with Texas forest products company Champion International. It happened that the executive vice president was a Warnell graduate, and the connection helped Benham get his foot in the door.

Since then, the name on his paycheck has changed several times—from Champion to St. Regis to International Paper to RMS—but each recognized Benham’s expertise with the land. Today, he works with contractors to transport about 550 loads of trees a week to conversion facilities across East Texas. And, because every acre that’s cut gets replanted, Benham is also overseeing the constant cycle that generates.

As he heads out to his next stop, Benham makes a mental list of what’s next. It’s planting season, which means there’s reforestation to stay on top of while getting the next load of timber out.

There’s a lot going on, and that’s exactly why Benham is there.

“It keeps you busy,” he says. “The thing I like about it is, every day is different. There’s always something that will come up and change your agenda.”

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