Photos by Christopher Millette
Sawmills in West Virginia, like Facemyer Lumber mill in Ripley, are producing record amounts of lumber.
By Ken Ward Jr.
West Virginians cut down a lot of trees. But they don't turn those trees into as many jobs as they could.
Timber is the only manufacturing industry where employment has increased in the last decade. There are 3,000 more people working in timber than there were in the mid-1980s.
But the amount of timber cut annually in West Virginia has doubled since the mid-1980s, to more than 1 billion board feet. The number of people working in the timber industry has increased by half that rate, to about 10,000.
Over and over, timber industry boosters predict that a boom is just around the corner. If we keep cutting, they say, the jobs will come.
Some day, West Virginia might finally stop trucking its trees to furniture factories in North Carolina or paper mills in Maryland.
Some day, West Virginians might make tables out of black cherry trees or floors out of giant old oaks. The additional jobs and economic growth might stay in the Mountain State.
"There is no doubt that, under professional management, the forest lands of West Virginia can produce the harvest peak of 1909, 1.5 billion board feet," the state Division of Forestry predicted in 1991.
"With four-fifths of the state in forest cover, it is expected that forestry will be the basis for the state's new economy."
To date, timber expansion has been modest.
Workers at Facemyer Lumber in Jackson County separate lumber into different grades before shipping it.
The West Virginia timber industry still mostly consists of loggers and sawmill workers.
About 240 logging companies employ 1,000 workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 200 sawmills employ 3,500 workers.
But West Virginia has only 14 kitchen cabinet factories that employ 200 people. Nine household furniture factories employ between 100 and 250 workers.
Most of the trees cut here are hauled out of state -- or shipped out of the country -- to be made into furniture or building materials. Extra jobs go with them.
"The problem with the structure of the wood industry in West Virginia is that, historically, West Virginia has been a lumber-producing state rather than a wood products manufacturing state," said a 1988 report for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
In 1981, that report said, West Virginia ranked 25th among all states in volume of timber harvested, but only 39th in the amount of value added through wood products manufacturing.
"By failing to manufacture finished wood products in the state, West Virginia is forfeiting not only added product value, but additional jobs, personal income, and tax revenue as well."
David E. White studied the economy of the state's forests as a professor at the West Virginia University College of Agriculture and Forestry. In a 1994 article, White concluded:
In terms of jobs and value of products manufactured, the timber industry is a small part of the state's total economy.
Between 1990 and 1995, timber accounted for only 1.5 percent of the state's total employment. It makes up just 1.1 percent of gross state product.
Trees growing in the forest don't always translate into valuable wood products. In West Virginia, there are major constraints to this translation.
About two-thirds of the state's hardwood trees are suitable only for making ties, pallets and other low-value products. Surveys show most landowners do not buy their property to grow and cut timber. They just want to hunt or fish or live on their land.
Because West Virginia doesn't process much wood into finished products, the state doesn't get as much economic kick from its forests as other states.
Each cubic foot of wood removed from West Virginia forests in 1987 generated only about $3.50 in value of shipments. In neighboring states, the figures ranged from $12.50 in Virginia to $71.17 in Ohio.
"West Virginia's timber industry will probably not increase very much, perhaps not at all," White wrote.
"The timber industry may play a more significant role in the future economy of the state than it has in the past, but that is not at all certain."
Some positive trends
Experts agree on at least one major positive trend in West Virginia's timber industry -- the recent increase in the number of dry kilns. Processed wood products are made from lumber that is dried in kilns.
In 1982, there were fewer than 100 kilns at 26 sites across West Virginia, according to WVU reports. These kilns dried about 67 million board feet of lumber a year, the reports said.
In 1984, West Virginia was drying just one quarter of its lumber production, compared to the 60 percent national average, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Because little lumber could be dried in West Virginia, there was less chance it would be made into other products here. It wouldn't make much sense to haul lumber out of state to be dried and then haul it back to make furniture out of it. If the lumber could be dried here, companies might go another step and make it into furniture here as well.
By 1992, the number of kilns had grown to 249 at 56 sites. The total amount of lumber dried in the state had nearly tripled, to about 190 million board feet a year.
"This is important," said James P. Armstrong, a WVU forestry professor who has studied the growth of drykilning in the state. "It's one way we're moving toward improving the value-added side of our forest products industry."
Others point to scattered expansions in some secondary timber processing across the state.
American Woodmark added 50 jobs in 1993 at its cabinet factory in Moorefield. Bruce Hardwood has expanded its flooring mill at Beverly in Randolph County several times over the last three years. Even Gov. Gaston Caperton and his son, Gat, bought a small furniture factory in Berkeley Springs.
Joel Stopha, a wood manufacturing specialist with the WVU Appalachian Hardwoods Center, noted that several mills across the state have started cutting raw lumber into pieces of a certain size used to make furniture in a factory somewhere else. This is another step toward value-added wood products, Stopha said.
"There have been some very good success stories in the state," Stopha said.
More pulp mills
In early September, the West Virginia Forestry Association distributed a chart which compared the size of forests and forest industries in West Virginia with those in Ohio and Virginia.
The chart showed Ohio has just 7.9 million acres of forests and Virginia 15.4 million acres, compared to the nearly 12 million acres of forests in West Virginia.
But Ohio and Virginia both have more people working in forest-related businesses and generally get more economic impact from their forests, according to the chart.
In Ohio, for example, more than 70,000 people work in forest-related industries. In Virginia, the forests provide about 228,000 jobs.
In West Virginia, the Forestry Association estimates there are 20,000 people working in forest-related jobs. Government agencies say the number is half that.
Ohio gets $7 billion and Virginia $9.8 billion a year in economic impact from their forests, compared to the $2.1 billion West Virginia is estimated to receive.
That amounts to $886 per acre in Ohio, $624 per acre in Virginia, and just $160 per acre in West Virginia, according to the Forestry Association.
According to the chart, one major reason for West Virginia's low economic boost from forests is that Ohio has eight pulp and paper mills and Virginia has nine. West Virginia doesn't have any.
The chart suggests that West Virginia should have seven pulp and paper mills. If it did, according to the forestry association, the state might receive a grand total of 176,000 jobs and $7.6 billion a year in economic impact from its forests.
"Everyone is saying what one pulp and paper mill is going to do in West Virginia, but Ohio has eight and Virginia has nine. I don't see any of the devastation people are talking about," said Dick Waybright, lobbyist for the forestry association.
"It's not that we're encouraging eight mills to come to the state," he said. "We're saying there is no problem with having enough resources for this Apple Grove pulp mill.
"It might be that we can't really sustain three or four pulp mills, but one pulp mill certainly isn't going to use up all the resource and we could still get more oriented strand board mills or other secondary manufacturing."
Still not many jobs
Many observers still caution that timber industry growth, especially in the form of pulp and paper mills and chipboard plants, has some downsides.
Pulp and paper mills aren't necessarily the best way to use hardwood trees. Mature, good quality hardwoods are worth a lot more money if they are sold to be made into furniture.
Moreover, pulp and paper mills don't add as many jobs -- or jobs that pay as well -- as furniture factories or other value-added facilities.
A West Virginia University study found that, for every million dollar increase in value of production, pulp and paper mills add about 10 jobs and $400,000 in payroll. A $1 million investment in a chipboard plant provides about 12 jobs, according to the WVU study.
In contrast, a million-dollar investment in a wood kitchen cabinet factory provides about 22 jobs. A household furniture factory would add nearly 40 jobs, according to the same WVU study.
David Greenstreet, a WVU economist who wrote the study, also adds: "Although the increase in wood products jobs has contributed to the well-being of state residents, it is a mixed blessing for a couple of reasons.
"Logging jobs are low wage and sensitive to the ups and downs of business cycles," Greenstreet wrote.
"West Virginia already has a lot of resource-based jobs in sectors that are sensitive to business cycles," he wrote. "Adding wood products jobs tends to contribute to the state's vulnerability to downswings in the national economy."
Whatever the situation statewide, the timber industry is definitely a major force in some small communities.
In Webster County in 1990, for example, the timber industry was the only manufacturing industry. It accounted for 11.9 percent of the county's employment.
In four West Virginia counties in 1995, the timber industry accounted for more than 10 percent of jobs, according to figures from the West Virginia Bureau of Employment Programs.
Pocahontas County led the list, with 13.5 percent of its jobs in wood products. About 440 of the county's 3,250 workers are employed in the timber business.
In Randolph County, nearly 1,300 of the 10,500 employed residents, about 12 percent, work in the timber industry. In Hardy County, about 560 of the 5,300 workers, or 10.5 percent, worked in the timber industry.
But most of these timber-dominated counties are among the poorest counties in the state.
The county with the biggest percentage of timber industry jobs -- Pocahontas -- has an unemployment rate that is nearly twice the state rate of 7 percent, according to the Bureau of Employment Programs.
Randolph County, with more timber jobs than any other county, has an unemployment rate of nearly 12 percent.
Timber not a cure-all
Researchers at Auburn University have studied Alabama communities where logging, sawmills and paper plants are the biggest or only employer. They found these communities are among the poorest in their regions.
"An alternative view of timber-dependent communities is that they constitute corporate satellites: sources of raw materials which flow out of the community to feed the forest products industry's metropolitan headquarters," the Auburn researchers wrote in 1993.
"In this view, exploitation of timber dependent communities by industrial centers causes and ensures their persistent underdevelopment."
In timber-dependent communities that have little value-added manufacturing, the Auburn researchers found, residents are generally less likely that average Americans to graduate from high school, more likely to live below the poverty level and more likely if they are women to give birth while they are still in their teens.
These problems could be reduced if trees were made into other products, such as furniture, in the communities where they are cut. Factories to make these products would provide more and better paying jobs.
"Development of secondary manufacturing facilities ... holds promise for increasing the contribution made to economic development by the forest products industry," the Auburn researchers wrote.
"Secondary forest products manufacturing jobs in Alabama are more stable and, on average, wages paid are 30 to 35 percent higher than those in primary forest products manufacture," they wrote. "Higher wages result in more discretionary income that can be spent in the community, further increasing the pace of economic development.
"Moreover, as secondary manufacturing capacity grows, demand for supplies required in the manufacturing process increases," they wrote. "This demand induces expansion of the supplying businesses, which in turn hire more employees, thereby further stimulating the local economy."
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