By Ken Ward Jr.
The West Virginia Development Office has formed a committee to examine concerns that the state's timber industry has grown too much and focused too much on chipboard plants and a huge pulp mill.
Agency officials said they want to look into questions raised by The Charleston Gazette's four-part series of articles, The Forest for the Trees.
"You obviously have pushed us to look more closely than we would have otherwise," said Thomas C. Burns, the Development Office's executive director.
Burns said he wants to look into increased timber cutting and the significant drop in timber growth-to-removal ratio, which measures whether logging is sustainable.
The Development Office is considering whether forest products should be dropped as one of the business segments it targets for statewide expansion, Burns said.
"We want to look at it and make sure we still have the resource there to use it as a target industry," Burns said last week.
The decision to investigate was apparently made sometime in the last few weeks. Burns sent the Gazette an opinion piece Nov. 14 responding to concerns raised by the series.
"It is a fact that West Virginia's forests are getting bigger, not smaller, and growth exceeds removals," Burns wrote in the article, which was published Nov. 22.
"The long-range forecast for the wood industry in West Virginia is optimistic," Burns wrote. "We have favorable growth-to-removal ratio, a good quality of wood and the support industry necessary to attract value-added manufacturing which will increase the number of quality jobs available to West Virginians."
Burns said he wants his office to get a variety of views on the timber industry and the state of West Virginia forests.
But so far, none of the foresters or environmental activists who have expressed concern about the timber industry boom have been asked to be part of the Development Office discussions.
Several meetings have already been held, Burns said. Another is scheduled for Wednesday. Officials from the Forestry Division and from several forest products think tanks in the state, including the Appalachian Hardwood Center at WVU, have been invited.
"At this point, we're not trying to bring in environmentalists and people like that," Burns said. Those discussions will come later, Burns said, after the Development Office has talked with industry supporters.
"You have to take one step at a time," Burns said. "We need to assess the situation and decide where we are with that industry from a business side of things."
But Forestry Division Director Bill Maxey said the Development Office group is not going to look at broader questions of whether continued logging growth is good or bad.
Maxey said the office wants only to talk about finding better ways to lure value-added timber businesses, such as furniture factories, into West Virginia.
In fact, Maxey said the Development Office discussions grew out of a letter he sent to Gov. Gaston Caperton urging the state to work harder on the value-added side of the timber industry.
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