By Ken Ward Jr.
SUPPOSE you want to sell some timber. Maybe you inherited some land when your grandfather died. Selling some of the trees might help send your kids to college.
Or maybe you're hoping some income from cutting a few trees off your land will add a little to your retirement income.
But suppose you don't know much about timbering. You've never sold any of your trees before.
How will you find someone to do the cutting? Will you be able to get a good price? How will you figure out which trees to have cut down and which to leave? Can you make sure the forest is protected so you can hike and hunt in it after the loggers leave?
These questions trouble many West Virginians.
They could become even more troubling. The amount of timber cut in West Virginia every year has doubled since 1987. New timber plants need even more wood.
Some worry that West Virginians who don't know better might sell their good hardwoods to chipboard companies or pulp mills to make a quick buck. How are people supposed to know they would make more money if they let the trees grow a few years and sell th em to a sawmill or furniture plant?
Most forestry consultants are trained mainly in how to grow trees as a crop or work directly for the timber industry. So how are landowners supposed to find out how to protect their forests if they don't want to cut down any trees?
State foresters, forestry professors and industry officials agree West Virginia isn't doing enough to education landowners about good ways to sell their timber or protect their forests.
"I feel very strongly this is a big concern," said Bill Maxey, director of the state Division of Forestry.
Consider the Forestry Division itself.
The agency is supposed to provide help to landowners who want to better manage their land or sell some of their timber. But it has only 50 service foresters, not even one for each of West Virginia's 55 counties.
If a landowner calls the Forestry Division to help him or her draw up a forest plan or figure out if timber is ready to be sold, it takes anywhere from a month to six months for a service forester to get to the landowner.
Maxey says service foresters work hard. But there just aren't enough service foresters to help out all of the more than 260,000 private forest owners in West Virginia, Maxey says.
The Forestry Division is also now saddled with a lot of other duties - everything from regulating ginseng harvesters to overseeing the state's voluntary timber best management practices and fighting forest fires, Maxey says.
"Our responsibilities have mushroomed," Maxey said. "We had to shift our priorities accordingly.
"We try to do the best with what we've got, but the added responsibilities have taken us away from landowner assistance," Maxey said.
Steve Hollenhorst teaches land use policy at West Virginia University's forestry school and is a frequent critic of Maxey and the Forestry Division.
But Hollenhorst agrees that the division doesn't have enough resources to help landowners with timber plans, let alone with ways to protect wildlife and biodiversity.
"I think the foresters in the state division really want to help the landowners articulate their goals for their property and come up with some sort of plans to proceed," Hollenhorst said.
"Bill Maxey is right," Hollenhorst said. "They don't have the resources."
Even if a landowner is lucky enough to get help from a state service forester, those foresters are only allowed to spend three days a year with an individual landowner.
So the Forestry Division is increasingly likely to refer landowners to private, consulting foresters who have registered with the state.
The division keeps a list of foresters it recommends. But the agency checks only to make sure the consulting foresters have a four-year forestry degree before adding him or her to the recommended list.
The Forestry Division also administers another, more detailed program through which private foresters help landowners manage their land.
Under this program, private foresters will help landowners write detailed forest stewardship plans. Private foresters are paid $5.50 an acre for this. The U.S. Forest Service pays 75 percent of the cost. The landowner pays the rest.
Foresters who take part have to complete Forestry Division training which focuses not only on timbering, but forest recreation, other forest uses, and biodiversity.
The program has been successful, Maxey says. More than 2,000 plans covering 380,000 acres have been written in the four years since the program began in West Virginia.
With another grant from the Forest Service, the state is helping to form the West Virginia Woodlands Association. The group will educate forest owners about ways to manage forests for logging and other uses, such as recreation, wildlife management and ol d-growth forest considerations, Maxey said.
Some of the larger timber and paper companies that operate in West Virginia also help landowners with forest management. These include Westvaco Corp. and Georgia-Pacific.
Normally, these companies will help landowners come up with plans for managing their forest and future timber sales. In exchange, the companies ask to bid on the timber sales when they occur.
The existing West Virginia Forestry Association is also doing its part to help landowners, said association lobbyist Dick Waybright.
The association offers a packet of information that includes a discussion of ways to plan timber sales and deal with timber taxation in West Virginia.
"That's one of the biggest things, ever since we had a tree here - to make sure people know how to manage their forests," Waybright said. "It's something we should be thinking a lot more about."
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