CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Because so many of its employees have been laid off, the state Division of Forestry says it’s no longer able to perform routine regulation of West Virginia logging operations.
Instead, those duties will be spun off to other agencies. If there’s a complaint that logging has built up mud on a road, the state Division of Highways will handle it. If a complaint focuses on logging sediment running into a stream, that becomes the problem of the Division of Environmental Protection.
Whereas forestry inspectors worked with logging operations to prevent problems and schedule clean-ups, State Department of Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette predicted the new oversight model won’t be as synergetic.
“They’re now going to get a fine,” Burdette said.
That’s because, he said, the other agencies also lack the resources to work with loggers. They’ll have to react quickly to problems and move on.
“We’re not going to have staff to go out on a regular basis,” Burdette said.
“There won’t be anyone to say on a regular basis ‘Don’t do this. Fix this.”
Thirty-seven Division of Forestry workers — about one-third of the agency’s workforce — were laid off in July.
The cuts were in response to a $1.7 million projected revenue deficit.
West Virginia is the third most-forested state in the nation.
Dan Cooley is in charge of Division of Forestry’s Region 2 operations, which covers many of West Virginia’s most heavily logged counties.
“I had nine foresters working under me when they did the layoffs,” Cooley said. “I got hit the hardest. They took down seven. Now there are just two and myself. We can’t really function as it is now.”
Cooley said there are 632 logging operations in his region subject to inspection right now.
“Each one of us had areas we were responsible for. If we were by a job we would stop by and do preventative work. We also do a final check on every job. We would walk the job and make sure all their water control was in place. Then we’d sign off when the job would be completed.
“Without us there, there’s no one to check reclamation on logging jobs.”
Cooley said most loggers can be trusted to abide by the rules. But some may learn they can let the regulations slide.
“The problem is just going to gradually keep getting worse. The majority of our work was focused on keeping the streams clean, keeping the sediment out of the streams.”
His fear is that during periods of heavy rainfall, West Virginia’s risk of flooding could worsen. Much of the state was already subject to devastating floods this summer.
“Flooding is now a concern,” Cooley said. “It’s opened up the area to water that didn’t run there normally now has a place to run. There’s very, very serious problems.”
Also concerning is the approach of forest fire season starting Oct. 1. Burdette doubts the forestry agency has the resources to effectively fight fires.
“Members of the division are going to do everything they can to maintain necessary forest fire protection in West Virginia, but unfortunately, the reality we currently face is that the number of fires may exceed the number of personnel,” Burdette said.
Options include calling out the National Guard or using assistance from the state Division of Corrections, but neither is an ideal solution.
“Corrections would likely be sending relatively inexperienced personnel,” Burdette said. “The National Guard, while more experienced, comes at an increased cost.”
How Forestry got to this point is a tangled tale of budgeting.
From 1989 through mid-2005, Division of Forestry received a little more than 3 percent in timber severance tax.
In 2006, the tax was raised to 4 percent, but Forestry didn’t get the entire amount. Only 1.22 percent went to Forestry. Another 2.78 percent went toward paying off the state’s workers’ compensation debt.
Some of the Forestry funding gap was made up through the general revenue fund because the switch in the severance tax was meant to last only until the workers’ comp debt was paid off.
Then in 2011, the total tax was reduced to 2.78 percent. Of that, Forestry got zero. General revenue made up the gap because it was supposed to be a short-term situation.
In the most recent session, legislators trimmed the tax again, saying they were completing a promise to the industries that paid the excess severance tax.
This time the tax was cut to 1.5 percent, with Forestry receiving the full amount. There was no addition of general revenue funding to make up for what Forestry used to receive.
In sum, Forestry experienced a loss of $1.13 million in appropriations for this fiscal year after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposed severance tax of 2.78 percent was reduced to 1.5 percent. Cash revenue is also projected to be down $600,000, totaling the $1.7 million cut from the agency.
State administrators negotiated with the state Forestry Association to fill the gap, but no agreement was reached.
Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall (R-Putnam), says it was the Legislature’s role to set a budget in line with revenue projections — but not to specify how particular agencies reacted to the cuts.
“From the perspective of the Legislature, if they want us to take oversight, I guess we can,” Hall said. “My view was that the executive branch knows what it needs to run its operations. We don’t; we’re a citizen Legislature.
“I don’t tell the Department of Commerce on a day-to-day basis what they should do in their operation. That’s, quite frankly, the purview of the governor and the administration.
Money could be made available to fund Forestry’s full payroll, Hall said, but it would involve other hard choices in state government.
“There’s general revenue money. You could fund this — maybe take money from some other program for a year until you settle it, but that just didn’t happen,” Hall said. “The Legislature can’t do that on its own.”
The situation could get worse. In July 2019, the severance tax that currently funds logging inspection activities is to sunset.
“We recognize that a few years down the road we face the elimination of all severance dollars going into the Division of Forestry,” Burdette said.
Logger Eddie Cochran, who runs an operation of about 300 acres around Webster County, valued the guidance he received from Forestry Division employees over the years. He said inspectors have steered him out of trouble.
Now Cochran fears that involvement by other agencies might result in over-regulation.
“So far, we haven’t had any trouble. Of course, nobody has called to complain,” Cochran said. “But that’s just a matter of time. You always have someone call about something.
“I’ve had my own job now for six years and I’ve never had the first citation about anything. If I was uncertain about something I would always go to the Division of Forestry and talk to them about it. I never had a bit of trouble with it.”