BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — Jay Reed was among the 37 state foresters who were laid off when budget woes struck two summers ago.
Reed had only been on the job nine months when the layoff hit. Now he’s been back with the state Division of Forestry for nine months.
“We had a lot of people that didn’t come back. We lost a lot of good people who didn’t come back,” said Reed, who spent the first 20 years of his career working in the timber industry.
“There was a lot of us so everyone’s got their own individual circumstance. We’re still very short, personnel-wise. But we’re moving forward and we’re very encouraged.”
He’s a walking sign of recovery for the Division of Forestry, which has been filling some of the positions that were lost two summers ago while also reorganizing.
After the layoffs, the biggest concern was that resources would be thin when it came to the crucial roles of fighting forest fires and watching out for problems like runoff at logging sites.
“We got extremely lucky last year,” Reed said.
State Forestry Director Barry Cook, still relatively new to his job, says about a third of the positions that were lost have been filled again. About nine hires are going through the state Division of Personnel for approval or certification.
“We’ll do those and that will help us fill in the gaps we created when we went from the three regions to the six regions,” Cook said, referring to another aspect of reorganization.
Under Cook’s guidance, the agency has redrawn its district boundaries while also moving foresters toward being generalists.
“With the reorganization, people were set up as specialists. We had guys who just did fire. We had guys who just did landowner assistance, and we had people who just did logging assistance. Everybody is a service forester which they used to be in times past, which means every forester performs all of those duties,” Cook said.
“If we have a fire everybody is available for fire. Everybody has to do it all. And foresters are trained to do that. It gives them a chance to use their training in all of those aspects.”
There’s still a possibility that Forestry could be reorganized in a different way.
Legislation that was considered last year would have moved the agency from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Agriculture.
Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt is still pushing for that move. He recently sent a letter to Gov. Jim Justice, outlining his own vision of West Virginia’s timber as a marketable crop.
“There is no reason not to believe the cooperation for forest products would not continue, if not improve, with a move to agriculture,” Leonhardt wrote.
Meanwhile, state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, has also been touting the potential of the Division of Forestry.
Thrasher said a good first step was starting to return the jobs that were lost earlier.
“First, I think the laying off of the foresters was a mistake. It was a misguided effort to reduce costs, but it was ill-advised,” Thrasher said.
“The governor was insistent on bringing those foresters back, and it made great sense. You don’t want the Department of Environmental Protection being burdened by doing inspections in forests. That’s not their forte. That’s not their expertise. And we heard very strongly from the private business community that they wanted them back.
“It’s great to see them back, and we can see an uptick not only in the morale of people but really in the productivity and the product that’s coming out of the forest.”