CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Division of Forestry has a nice problem.
Both the state Department of Commerce and the state Department of Agriculture want Forestry.
That issue was debated during the past regular session. The topic was kicked around again during a legislative interim meeting on Tuesday.
Crescent Gallagher, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, took his agency’s case to lawmakers. Gallagher read a letter from Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt, who could not attend.
“We are asking to move the division back to its rightful home,” Gallagher said, referring to earlier instances in West Virginia’s history when Forestry had been housed within Agriculture.
He continued, “West Virginia is sitting on a resource that has been under utilized for years. Trees are a crop. Just like any other plant, they must be properly managed.”
Forestry is currently in the Commerce Department. The agency’s director, Barry Cook, told legislators Forestry would prefer to remain there because it has made great strides in cooperating with the Division of Natural Resources, the Development Office and the Division of Tourism, all within Commerce.
“We may find some superficial reasons why Division of Forestry should become part of Agriculture but the fact is the Forestry division is an economic driver for the state of West Virginia and we should remain organized with other economic drivers like DNR, Tourism and the Development Office,” Cook said.
As legislators discussed a bill that would have transferred Forestry to Agriculture earlier this year, one of the main hangups was whether state foresters would be 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.
This morning, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle brought up that question again. “Would they lose civil service protection?”
Gallagher acknowledged they would.
An aspect of the concern has been about protecting Foresters as they investigate fires, particularly if they have to confront well-connected land owners who could choose to retaliate. Gallagher said there are inspectors already within the Agriculture department who already face such possibilities and do their jobs well.
Proposals to switch Forestry to the Department of Agriculture gained momentum last year after 37 foresters were laid off in a budget crunch.
Cook said that, during the seven months he has served as director, 12 state foresters have been brought back.
He said the agency also has made strides in coordinating with related agencies and accelerating timbering activities on authorized public lands.
He offered criticism of the previous administration for not reaching potential on timbering.
“You might think here we go, we’ve got an overcut forest,” he said. “We’ve got all of this buildup in the woods. The forests are overmature and we need to bring that volume back in control.”
Cook said there is more Forestry could be doing, particularly in conjunction with the other agencies within the Department of Commerce.
“So why is Forestry in Commerce? We’re a revenue driver within the state, just like Development, just like Tourism,” he said. “We have a huge opportunity to grow the industry in the state. We need to continue this alliance with the Department of Commerce, particularly with the Development Office.”
Senator Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, wanted to know about the potential for West Virginia’s timber playing a prominent role in other manufacturing processes.
“The governor has made a big issue out of forestry industry, particularly downstream,” Gaunch said. “I would love to hear you say ‘We have a strategy for this downstream.’ That would make me feel a lot better if you’d say ‘We have a strategy for this.'”
Cook responded that there are possibilities he’s not yet at liberty to specify.
“We currently have about four woods products companies looking at investments in the state right now. They are a second level. They are not finished products goods. We’re really looking at all levels,” Cook said.