CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Fifteen of the 37 state foresters laid off last year are being called back to work, state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher announced Friday.
“We are excited to put our foresters back to work,” Thrasher said in a news release. “This is just one more example of Governor Justice’s initiatives to restore sound management of our state forests in a fiscally responsible manner.”
Gov. Jim Justice himself commented on plans to bring back the foresters during a public appearance this afternoon in the Governor’s Reception Room at the state Capitol.
“I think it’s sorely needed,” Justice said. “Our forests could be an unbelievable attribute to West Virginia and the very people who know the most got laid off.”
Justice added, “So we’ve found a path to get our foresters back into the forest, looking after our loggers, looking after our timber and doing the things that they know best.”
The forestry workers were laid off over a $1.7 million shortfall in their own agency’s budget that came about largely because of a decrease in timber severance tax money.
During a special Town Hall show on MetroNews Talkline a few weeks ago, Justice said he would like to bring the foresters back.
The money financing the move is coming from positions currently vacant in the state Office of Miner’s Safety Health & Training. Justice will ask the legislature to carry over the transfer into the next budget year. Friday’s news release said the Justice administration would work with the legislature, the Division of Forestry and industry to come up with a permanent funding solution. One of the options could include the reinstitution of the timber severance tax to the rate of 2.78 percent, the Justice administration said.
Justice said today, “Now what we did, we found dollars. We found them in miners health and safety. Now that doesn’t mean we’re going to take one dime away from the safety or the health of our miners. But there’s $9 million in that fund, and it takes a half-million dollars to bring these foresters back today. We spend annually out of that fund about $2 million.”
Workers within the state Department of Environmental Protection have been helping with some forestry responsibilities since the layoffs. Justice said that hasn’t worked.
“This was clearly a case where we had the wrong agency performing these activities,” Justice said in the news release. “Our state foresters are some of the most dedicated workers in our state, and they are far better equipped to handle this type of activity. I am excited that these valued employees are being called back to work at the Division of Forestry. Just like our current budget crisis across state government, we shouldn’t kick the can down the road any further as we attempt to make our timber industry the most environmentally sound in the country.”
The Legislature has been considering a bill to transfer the Division of Forestry from the Department of Commerce under Justice and Thrasher to the Department of Agriculture under the newly-elected Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt, a former senator.
Today, Leonhardt commented on Justice’s desire to bring back 15 foresters.
“I’m glad to see that 15 of the laid off foresters are returning to work today. It is great to see the Governor shares my passion to revitalize our forestry industries,” Leonhardt stated. “We look forward to working with the governor to realign our forestry industries with the rest of our agriculture industries in the state. Safe to say, we both believe agriculture is part of the solution to reenergize and diversify our economy.”
Leonhardt continued, “Overall, I am happy that our forestry division is getting the proper attention it deserves. Our state foresters do a thankless, but crucial job of protecting one of West Virginia’s most valuable resources.”
The Senate’s Agriculture Committee this week passed the bill moving the Forestry division to the Agriculture Department. It’s now likely to go to Senate Finance.
Brad McElhinny also contributed to this story.