BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher says West Virginia’s timber industry has untapped economic potential.
“There absolutely are other opportunities,” Thrasher said this past week while taking part in the ceremonial opening of a Division of Forestry district headquarters in Upshur County in the heart of the state’s timber activities.
Many of West Virginia’s signature industries have long struggled with raw materials being shipped elsewhere to be turned into final products.
“It’s true in petrochemicals, it’s been true in coal and it’s true in forestry,” Thrasher said. “So we want to change that. The governor wants those value-added products locating in West Virginia.
“We feel like upping the raw supply will contribute to that happening. We are aggressively recruiting companies, we are aggressively understanding how that whole system works. And I think you’ve already seen positive results.”
He cited this fall’s announcement by Armstrong Flooring in Randolph County that it intends to expand, potentially adding 50 jobs. He also referenced the reversal of a decision to close a Mohawk Industries wood flooring plant in Mingo County.
“There are several other opportunities that are at hand,” Thrasher said. “And I think you are going to see a gradual but steady increase to people who add value to our wood products.
“We’ve got plenty of trees to ship to whoever wants to buy them. There’s no shortage of trees. But we feel we want a component of that, as much as possible, to go to value-added products.”
Thrasher also discussed the likelihood of increased timbering in state and national forests. He said the Division of Forestry has concluded that trees on state lands are growing faster than they have been cut.
“So we have ramped that up, not to reach the growth rate but to get closer to it. That’s a dramatic increase to revenue in forestry,” he said.
He estimated such cuts are generating $2 million in revenue a year right now. He suggested that amount could be significantly higher, perhaps about $20 million.
Of that, 75 percent goes to the state’s general fund with the remaining 25 percent going to the forestry division.
The Monongalia National Forest also may be subject to more timbering within West Virginia’s borders, Thrasher said.
“The Mon National Forest has not been harvested in decades,” Thrasher said. “The national forests in Pennsylvania and Virginia are. We work closely with the superintendent to increase forestry activity within the national forest. It’s good for the health of the forest among other things.”
He also said timbering activities will be increased on state park lands, with the goal of clearing old forest while producing revenue that can be pumped back into park improvements.
“Our state parks are exquisite but boy do they need some TLC,” Thrasher said.
He estimated $40 million to $50 million could be raised through increased timbering in the forests surrounding state parks.
“If we’re really going to ramp up tourism, which is really a goal of this governor, we want to have a nice product when people come to visit. So we need to fix up our state parks,” Thrasher said.
“What’s the best way to do it? We’ve got tens of thousands of acres of forests on state parks that are some of the finest timber anywhere. On a very, very very limited basis, we want to harvest some of those trees. It’s great for wildlife, it will improve the parks, and the beautiful thing about it is, all that money goes right back into the parks to fix up these lodges and cabins. I think it is a no-brainer. I think it makes great sense.”
Barry Cook, the director of the state Division of Forestry, says he’s glad to see the state embracing additional economic opportunities in the timber industry.
“West Virginia has a tremendous resource. We’re the third most forested state in the union. We are growing almost a billion feet of volume of our timber a year. We have a resource here that is going to be very attractive to people,” Cook said.
“We’re going a long ways to get these going.”
He said the state needs to make greater use of the Heartlands Gateway, an intermodal hub in Wayne County.
“I’ve got companies right now who are looking at investments in the state and they’re bringing jobs to the state. But they are export companies,” Cook said.
“So I am working with the yard people, with the port authority folks; we’re working with expediters to try to promote them.”
Mark Haddix, president of the West Virginia Forestry Association, said he’s pleased by the current emphasis on the state’s timbering potential.
“What’s fantastic about the wood industry is that it’s renewable. We do a good job of growing trees. That value can help us in a lot of different ways,” Haddix said.
“Anything we do to add value to that process will be fantastic. Having the focus on that is very exciting.”
Haddix said the state has possibilities for growth in a number of areas. He said the state has traditionally looked at secondary manufacturing.
He suggested a newer use might be for a product such as cross-laminated timber, a way of constructing buildings as a primary building source.
“Our approach is, if we add value anywhere, from the land to the final product, then we’ve done well,” he said. “So it could be a new use.”
John Cobb, a landowner with 350 acres in Lewis County, said he has benefited from guidance provided by the Division of Forestry. He had a stewardship plan put together in 2015 with the help of a state forester.
“He has allowed me to understand my property better from the standpoint of water quality, tree quality, for future commercial cutting and revenue, for wildlife and for the quality of the land and the health of the forest, altogether.”
He has tried to spread the word about how pleased he is with what has happened with his land.
“If it wasn’t for the foresters in the West Virginia Division of Forestry, I would have none of this that has helped me with the value of my property and the enjoyment of my property,” he said.