CHARLESTON, W.Va. — While the governor and the Legislature are trading shots over the coming fiscal budget gap, 37 workers from the state Division of Forestry who were laid off during the last budget crisis are still hoping to come back to work.
The upcoming fiscal gap is estimated to be almost $500 million.
The forestry workers were laid off over a $1.7 shortfall in their own agency’s budget that came about largely because of a decrease in timber severance tax money.
Last week, during a special Town Hall show on MetroNews Talkline, new Gov. Jim Justice said he would like to bring the foresters back.
A caller who identified himself as Jay in Alderson asked, “How did last year’s cut to forestry affect the governor’s thoughts on working on this budget? And right now we have a state forestry agency that’s not even looking after logging operations. Is there a plan for forestry?”
Justice responded, “I was adamantly against the forestry cuts. I thought that was crazy to tell you the truth. I mean the dollars that it saved had to be considered insignificant.”
Justice, as he has said before, touted an idea to lobby the federal government for a subsidy to promote the care of forests, based largely on the role of trees in reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
“We need to protect our forests beyond belief, and our foresters do a great job. To walk away and go in a different direction is just ludicrous.”
After the foresters were laid off last summer, there was worry about how their traditional role of working with logging operations to ensure environmental standards would still be done. Additional worries were even more practical: dealing with the possibility of flooding or forest fires without the usual manpower.
There’s some movement at the Statehouse on bringing back the laid off foresters, but it hasn’t exactly firmed up.
Senate Bill 183, introduced last month by Senator Craig Blair and sponsored by Republican Senators Dave Sypolt, Ed Gaunch, Patricia Rucker and Charles Trump would transfer the state Division of Forestry from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Agriculture.
The bill was assigned Feb. 8 to the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, although it’s been there ever since. The changes spelled out in the bill would mainly be structural and provide no guarantee that funding to pay the laid-off foresters would be restored.
Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt, himself a former state senator, says he would like for his agency to take over the Division of Forestry, “hopefully with the funding to hire back some of the foresters.”
During an interview at the state Capitol, Leonhardt made reference to some of Justice’s statements.
“The governor has already publicly stated he’s committed to having the funding for the foresters,” Leonhardt said. “So when they come back to the Department of Agriculture they should come back with the funding.”
Leonhardt said he considers timber to be a crop.
“Trees that are growing that we harvest for timber, that’s a crop,” Leonhardt said. “May take 50 years to grow a tree, not like corn, but it’s a renewable resource.”
Senator Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, represents communities in some of West Virginia’s most productive timbering areas. Karnes wasn’t an original co-signer on the bill that would move the Division of Forestry, but he said he would like to continue working for a way to bring back the foresters.
“I think it’s an important issue. I thought it was an important issue last year. I disgreed with the way it was handled,” Karnes said.
“The numbers we’re talking about are relatively insignificant compared with the overall size of the budget. We could have taken care of this problem, but the previous governor chose a different path. But I believe it’s something we can do.”