By Ken Ward Jr.
If you believe the state Development Office, West Virginia has an unlimited supply of trees that can be cut down to feed pulp mills and chipboard plants.
The Development Office promotes West Virginia forests as providing "perpetual availability" of raw materials.
"With 12.1 million acres of timberland and 60 billion board feet of inventory, the forest resources of West Virginia seem endless," says a Development Office Forest Resources flier.
"The state sits at the geographic center of the world-renowned Appalachian Hardwood belt. Climate and soils combine to provide an ideal growing environment for hardwoods.
"Our mixed species forests provide for a wide range of industry needs, the flier says. Building materials, cabinetry, furniture, paneling -- whatever the product -- West Virginia has the hardwood."
Rory Fraser, a West Virginia University forestry professor, thinks that's a bad way to look at state forests. It's an even worse way to promote them to industry, Fraser said.
Fraser believes the state would do better to promote the state's forest resources as scarce rather than plentiful. State Division of Forestry studies actually show that some valuable trees, such as oaks, are being cut faster than they are growing, Fraser said.
If the state tells companies that state forests have an abundance of timber, prices go down and individual landowners make less money. If the state promotes the more realistic view that valuable trees are more scarce, prices go up and landowners make mor e money from their forests, Fraser said.
Perhaps more important, promoting the idea that West Virginia forests are unlimited simply invites more companies -- like pulp mills and chipboard plants -- to come in and eat up more trees.
Fraser said the state should not promote cutting more West Virginia trees. Instead, he said, the state should try to keep the trees that are already cut in the state for processing into furniture or other value-added products.
"If you have a scarce resource, you want to encourage higher productivity and more efficient use or the resource," Fraser said. "What we seem to be attracting are these large, resource-using companies instead of companies that want to take production to another stage."
Promoting the idea of a scarce resource should translate into better use of the resource and better profits for woodland owners.
Rick Landenberger, an outdoor enthusiast and WVU forestry graduate student, agrees. But he thinks the state should also start looking at whether cutting more timber hurts other economic concerns and quality-of-life issues.
"I would start off with a really basic question: What is the relationship between increasing timber production and harvesting and the increasing recreation and tourism?" Landenberger said. "Are they compatible?"
"The question hasn't been answered," he said. "We know people are coming here for the big, wild environment. People like to come to West Virginia for forests and rivers.
"My feeling is that we can't have our cake and eat it too," Landenberger said. "You can't maximize both timber and tourism."
Cutting more timber
Tom Burns, executive director of the Development Office, thinks pulp and paper mills and chipboard plants are good for the state.
The Development Office has spent eight years trying to lure the Parsons & Whittemore Inc. pulp and paper mill to Mason County. The agency helped convince Georgia-Pacific, Weyerhaeuser and Trus-Joist MacMillan to come to West Virginia.
"I see those as real value-added industries, even though the final product is not a piece of wood you would see in your living room," Burns said.
All the large mills are highly automated, expensive investments that make something out of West Virginia wood, Burns said.
"The function of this office is not to get sawmills," Burns said. "We want to add as much value as possible and create as many jobs as possible close to this resource we have."
The Development Office is targeting two particular segments of the wood products industry: restaurant, bar and industrial furniture and public building furniture.
Both segments are expected to grow by 3 percent to 4 percent through 1998. Plants located in West Virginia are close enough to ship easily to their markets.
In both segments, the Development Office says, companies could operate more profitably in West Virginia than in other states.
But most of the savings for these companies would come in the form of lower wages for workers, according to Development Office promotional booklets.
Most of the nearly $500,000 in annual operating costs savings to a typical public building furniture company would come from a $345,000 savings in payroll and benefits, according to the Development Office. The average worker in such a company would make $17,000 a year in West Virginia. That's compared to the average of $21,500 in the states that make the most public building furniture.
Almost all of the $200,000 in annual savings to a typical restaurant furniture builder operating in West Virginia would come from lower employee wages and benefits, according to the Development Office. The average West Virginia employee at such a builder makes $16,700 a year, compared to the national average of nearly $21,000 and the average of $20,400 in the top 5 producing states.
The Development Office promotional brochures for these industries end by touting the state's quality work force.
"While you may feel you know everything thats important to initiating or expanding business operations here, there's at least one topic that hasn't been covered," the brochures say.
"The major advantage to doing business here is a commodity that defies measurement yet is directly linked to productivity," they say. "A resource that is self-generating, unlimited and constantly taking performance levels over the top."
"It's the work ethic of the people. Steeped in tradition and honed to perfection, that work ethic equates to low absenteeism, low turnover and job loyalty."
Jan Dickinson, press spokeswoman for the Development Office, said she sees no contradiction between touting low wages and praising the state's workers.
"It's based on fact," Dickinson said. "We're not suggesting people come in and pay that, we're just saying thats what people are making now.
"We're not trying to attract low-wage jobs. If thats what youre trying to get me to say, I'm not going to say it.
"We don't set the wages here in the Development Office any more than we set the state's resource base or proximity to national markets," Dickinson said. "Yes, we have high unemployment and that is one reason they can hire people more cheaply."
Running out of forests?
The Development Office continues to say West Virginia grows more than three times annually as many trees as the state cuts down every year.
Booklets urge prospective timber businesses to "reap the profits of West Virginia's 12 million acres of timberland with a 3-to-1 natural growth-to-removal ratio."
A Forest Resources flier states, "West Virginia timberland acreages and timber volumes have increased steadily for more than 40 years and are both currently at the highest levels of the century."
But a new study by the state Division of Forestry shows the effects of a doubling in the number of timber cut in West Virginia every year.
State loggers cut more than 1 billion board feet of timber in 1995, double the amount cut 10 years ago, according to the Forestry Division survey released in August.
The state now grows 1.3 trees for every 1 that is cut, according to the Forestry Division.
During an interview Sept. 10, Burns and Dickinson were told about the new figures by a Gazette reporter. The Forestry Division had not provided the Development Office with the survey results.
Burns promised to look into the issue.
As of last week, the Development Office had not investigated the change in the state's growth-to-removal ratio.
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