WEBSTER SPRINGS, W.Va. — Loggers say they want to bring state Division of Forestry inspectors back to work as soon as possible, preferably through the special session being called by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to address state flood relief funding.
The governor’s office says won’t happen because the session will focus only on flood-related expense matters.
“Why would he not do that?” asked Frank Stewart, executive director of the West Virginia Forestry Association.
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 the agency’s $1.7 million projected revenue deficit.
By this month, state leaders were saying the division could no longer do the routine regulation at the core of its mission. Regulation was being spun off to agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection, which also said it didn’t have enough resources.
Meanwhile, the state budget picture doesn’t appear to have improved much. Revenue collections in August remained disappointing, although state leaders were hoping for a better October.
“My position is, this money needs to be put back in for Forestry,” said state Sen. Robert Karnes, whose district includes some of West Virginia’s most actively-logged areas in Webster, Nicholas, Pocahontas, Upshur, Randolph and Pendleton counties.
How Forestry got to this point is a tangled tale of budgeting.
For almost 20 years, a timber severance tax funded the agency. Then state leaders started diverting a portion of that money to pay down workers compensation debts, funding Forestry with general revenue.
As the workers compensation debt neared being paid off, the severance tax was trimmed and is to sunset in July 2019. The Division of Forestry still got some severance money, but not enough for full funding, and there was no influx of general revenue money to make up the difference.
State administrators negotiated with the state Forestry Association to fill the gap by increasing the severance tax, but no agreement was reached.
Stewart, the forestry association director, says increasing the severance tax would discourage further growth of West Virginia’s wood industries.
“More and more our state sees taxes as an encumbrance to healthy industry, particularly severance taxes,” he said. “Severance tax is supposed to be applied to things you sever from the earth that cannot put back, like minerals.”
He contends state leaders are playing games with the timber industry.
“It appears to be being done intentionally, in a public forum, for reasons of election gains or losses or what have you,” Stewart said. “I don’t know that it’s not backfiring on the originators of this strategy to do this in the public eye.”
Senator Karnes , a Republican who is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, thinks there’s enough general revenue money to fund Forestry without cuts.
“I don’t think we need to cut,” Karnes said. “The revenue shortfall is not as bad as what the governor estimated.”
Karnes and other advocates for the Forestry inspectors contend they provide regulatory support and certainty for a vital state industry. West Virginia is the third most forested state in the nation.
“I’m a big cut guy, but don’t cut guys who are bringing revenue to the state,” Karnes said.
As Karnes spoke, he was among about 30 loggers and foresters at Bakers Island in Webster Springs, in the heart of West Virginia’s timber region. The group had gathered to discuss the state of the Forestry division and to show their support.
Among them was Phillip Jarvis , owner of Jarvis Logging in Upper Glade. He said he would be willing to pay increased severance tax to fund the agency, but he thinks that solution should be avoided.
“I’d be for that. It’s not something we should have to do,” Jarvis said.
“The governor can’t find $1.7 million to put Forestry back to work? If it was drug rehabilitation, he’d find it no problem.”
Another logger and landowner, Tom Cogar, runs an operation that goes back in his family for five generations. He said the timber industry is almost all his region has left and it needs predictable regulation.
“More lumber is being sawed in local mills than there’s ever been in my lifetime,” Cogar said, specifying 75 million board feet of lumber being sawed each year in Webster County.
Cogar said, if it came to it, he would be willing to pay an increased severance tax.
“I don’t have a problem with paying a little more severance tax to help the Division of Forestry,” he said. “It would be minor to help with severance tax to keep the Division of Forestry. We have to all work together.”
Forester Rexana McCourt works for Pardee & Curtin Timberlands, ensuring that the company’s 63,000 acres in Webster County is used properly by those logging on it. In the past, McCourt said, she worked hand-in-hand with state regulators.
“Between us, we can pretty well keep it covered,” she said. “We’re like a family. We work together to make sure timber is coming out of the woods and to the sawmill.”
Tim Woody , a forester who owns Tomorrow’s Forest and who works with two or three more logging companies, is concerned the situation in his area will get worse if the Division of Forestry isn’t restored to full strength.
“We’ve had a good relationship over the years,” Woody said. “Normally they came out three times on every job.”
In tree-lined Webster County, Woody said, observers are distrustful of what has happened in state government.
“Charleston has lost the trust of the industry,” he said. “We don’t have a voice any more.”
Woody realizes forest fire season, officially starting Oct. 1, is just ahead. He’s worried about what will happen if state foresters aren’t around to help organize efforts to fight the flames in West Virginia’s forests.
“It’s as dry in the woods as it’s ever going to get,” Woody said. “What do we do? Nobody in Charleston seems to care.”