CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice wants to keep the state Division of Forestry right where it is, the agency’s director told legislators today.
Legislators have been considering a bill that would transfer the Division of Forestry to the state Department of Agriculture, under newly-elected Secretary Kent Leonhardt, a former senator.
Randy Dye, director of the state Division of Forestry, appeared before the state Senate’s Agriculture Committee and said Justice wants to keep the agency in the Department of Commerce and begin restoring its resources.
Dye said he agrees.
“We are opposed to this bill,” Dye told the committee. “The governor wishes the Division of Forestry to remain within the Department of Commerce. He wants to restore the logging regulation program to at least 50 percent of the capacity that it was at previously. He wants the division of forestry employees to remain civil service.”
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 changes spelled out in the bill would mainly be structural and provide no guarantee of restoring funding to pay 37 state foresters who were laid off last summer.
The Agriculture Committee this evening approved the bill and passed it to the Senate floor, agreeing that it also should be referenced to the Senate Finance Committee.
Senators Ron Miller and Bob Beach, both Democrats, offered a variety of amendments to the bill, including that it be changed to a bill recommending a year of study of the move and that the transfer retain the civil service standing of state foresters.
The committee voted down all the proposed amendments except one that would ask the Department of Agriculture to provide a transition plan to the Legislature by July 1.
The main hangup for state foresters who would be affected by a change in the home of their agency would be whether they are categorized as will-and-pleasure employees.
The foresters have been civil service employees under the Department of Commerce, but they would be considered will-and-pleasure under the Department of Agriculture.
Earlier this month, state forester Charlie Spencer, who is based in Boone County, appeared before the Senate Agriculture Committee and discussed those concerns.
“We do things most people do not,” Spencer said. “We’ve had people come out with guns. We knock on people’s doors in the middle of the night. We chase arsonists with bloodhounds. The problem is, these kinds of activities tend to generate fights. If it’s a fight from the wrong person you could get fired.”
Spencer said he has no reason to think the current Agriculture Commissioner, Kent Leonhardt, would act vindictively but he said he and his fellow state foresters would like the protection of being civil service employees.
“We go into some hairy situations,” Spencer said. “My biggest concern is being fired from my job.”
After Spencer’s comments last week, Senator Beach said he understood his point.
“I share a lot of your concerns,” said Beach, D-Monongalia. “While I don’t think our current agriculture commissioner has any intentions of firing anyone, you just don’t know what will happen down the road.
Thirty-seven foresters were laid off last summer over a $1.7 shortfall in their own agency’s budget that came about largely because of a decrease in timber severance tax money. The state did go through civil service procedures during the layoffs.
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.
During today’s committee meeting, Dye said remaining in the Department of Commerce but regaining some or all of the lost funding would best allow the Division of Forestry to do its work.
“Our present staffing level cannot provide all those services like we once did – fire protection and regulating the logging sediment control act,” he said. “The governor is searching for funds to make this happen.”
Dye said the Department of Commerce is best positioned to market West Virginia’s timber resources.
“Secretary (Woody) Thrasher in the development office has a team in place to do that, and with closer coordination with the Division of Forestry remaining in the Department of Commerce that can happen,” Dye said.
Earlier this month in an interview at the Capitol, Leonhardt said he would like the Division of Forestry to be in his agency. He said he considers timber to be a kind of 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.”
Dye today said the Division of Forestry has a morale problem that would be best treated by remaining where it is.
“The Division of Forestry, as you know, at one time had 127 employees when fully staffed. Over a period of time that number has gone to 73 full time positions. Sixty-three of those are occupied,” Dye said.
“We have a morale issue because of the layoffs, the pending transfer to agriculture, the loss of civil service, an uncertain future. I’m stressing what I hear from the employees should they pursue other opportunities.”
Senator Patricia Rucker was pleased that both the Justice administration and Leonhardt in the Agriculture Department want to encourage the Division of Forestry to thrive.
“I definitely appreciate the commitment the governor has to this. I wish we had heard more about it earlier,” Rucker, R-Jefferson, said today. “It sounds to me like it’s almost equal, that we’re equally passionate to get Forestry back on track.”
Senator Beach reflected that he wished the discussion about Forestry’s home could be happening after Thrasher has gotten set at the Department of Commerce and after Leonhardt has had a year of getting the Agriculture Department the way he wants it.
“I wish this conversation were happening a year from now,” Beach said. “I think we’d have a different debate and dialogue.”
Earlier this week, the agriculture committee in the House of Delegates was scheduled to take up a bill about transferring the Division of Forestry to the Agriculture Department but set aside its discussion so the Senate’s version could be acted upon.
The bill in the House is sponsored by Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.