By Ken Ward Jr.
Some West Virginians think the timber industry will be part of the state's economic salvation. Others fear it will be an environmental disaster.
Either way you look at it, timber will probably be a big issue in West Virginia in coming years.
But neither of the leading candidates for governor wants to talk much about it.
Democrat Charlotte Pritt and Republican Cecil Underwood declined to be interviewed for this story.
Both have discussed timbering briefly in their campaigns.
Pritt has harshly criticized a proposal to build a huge pulp and paper mill in Mason County. Underwood said he favors the project.
Underwood has said the state should cut four times as much timber as is currently harvested. Pritt has questioned whether continued industry growth is sustainable.
The Underwood economic plan, unveiled last month in Wheeling, says the former governor would "promote timber and value-added products" if he is elected.
"West Virginia must adopt and practice absolutely the best forest management techniques to ensure the long-term growth and health of our timberers," the plan stated.
"Yet, currently, West Virginia harvests only one-fourth of its annual growth available for timbering and needs to process more timber into more valuable wood products.
"The state can attract more value-added wood products manufacturing and processing investment," the Underwood plan said. "Among the greatest beneficiaries of an increasingly vital wood products industry will be many of West Virginia's unemployed coal miners."
The plan said Underwood would create public-private partnerships to build wood products industrial parks and incubators.
Pritt has discussed the timber industry in two televised debates and in a speech last month to the West Virginia Environmental Council's annual conference.
She has hinted that she would crack down on out-of-state timber companies the state Tax Department says often move in and out of the state, cutting timber and avoiding taxes.
During her speech to the environmental council, Pritt said she worries that overharvesting of timber will hurt the state's growing tourism industry.
"Right now, the two fastest growing industries in the state are timber and tourism," Pritt said. "If we don't keep them reined in and work together, they could turn over the whole apple cart."
The Pritt campaign also took Underwood to task recently for saying the state could cut four times as much timber.
Underwood's comments were apparently based on a 10-year-old report from the U.S. Forest Service. That report estimated that, at the time, the state was growing nearly four times as much timber as was cut every year.
A new report released last month by the state Division of Forestry shows that ratio has changed as timber production increased. In 1995, the report says, the state grew only 1.3 as many trees at it cut.
"A healthy and clean environment is an economic resource just as ample coal and natural gas reserves are an economic resource," said Pritt political consultant Mike Plante. "This is especially true with relation to the growing tourism industry in West Virginia.
"Our concern with the Underwood plan is it would appear to harvest timber in a non-sustainable fashion," Plante said. "This will clearly harm the environment and, by extension, the tourism industry."
Plante said Pritt supports increasing value-added timber industries like furniture manufacturing.
"But he have to do so in a more sustainable fashion so we're not cutting trees faster than they're being replenished," Plante said.
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