By Ken Ward Jr.
More than 1,300 logging operations have been cited over the last three years for violating West Virginia's timber law. Only one of them has ever been fined.
If done wrong, logging can destroy streams. Water can run off logging roads, pick up soil and pack streams with sediment. Fish and other aquatic life can be choked to death. Banks can be left bare and open to erosion.
But like most Appalachian states, West Virginia relies on a good-faith effort of loggers to protect the environment. There are no mandatory rules for how to cut timber.
The West Virginia Division of Forestry says the state's voluntary logging guidelines have reduced environmental problems associated with timber operations.
"Our loggers are now educated as to the right way to log and are cooperating in this endeavor to protect our environment," Forestry Director Bill Maxey said in a 1994 annual report to Gov. Gaston Caperton.
"Every DOF district reports very noticeable improvement since the implementation of the Logging Sediment Control law became effective," Maxey wrote to the governor.
In a news release issued last March, Maxey declared that, "timber harvesting operations in the Mountain State have improved substantially in terms of protecting the environment."
But the Forestry Division's own numbers don't back up the agency's proclamations.
Compare, for example, the number of timbering complaints investigated by the agency since the law containing voluntary guidelines was approved.
In 1994, the Forestry Division investigated 502 complaints. In 1995, the agency investigated 577, an increase of nearly 15 percent. Through the end of September, Forestry Division inspectors had investigated 641 complaints in 1996, a nearly 28 percent increase since 1994.
The number of complaints the Forestry Division considered "valid" - meaning there was some kind of licensing problem or environmental damage - also increased over this three-year period.
In 1994, 373 complaints were considered valid, or 73 percent of the total. In 1995, 457 complaints, or 79 percent of the total, were considered valid. So far in 1996, 518 of the complaints, or about 81 percent, were considered valid.
It's hard to figure out from Forestry Division reports what kind of violations were involved in most of the complaints.
Take the reports compiled for the first three quarters of 1996.
The reports show that 158 of the 518 valid complaints, about 31 percent, involved one of the more serious environmental problems: muddy water near the timber job.
Another 50 of the valid complaints involved mud on roads and 30 concerned tree tops being left in streams. About 6 percent of the valid complaints, or 32 complaints, involved logging companies which cut timber without proper state licenses. About 10 percent, or 51 complaints, concerned loggers who cut without filing required notices with the Forestry Division. Another 18 valid complaints cited logging operations that weren't overseen by a state-certified logger.
But 179 of the valid complaints, or 35, are classified only as "Miscellaneous." Because more than a third of the valid complaints are not specifically identified, it's hard to draw conclusions about the magnitude of timber problems.
Stepped up efforts
Confronted with numbers that contradict him, Maxey backs off a bit from his claims that logging practices have improved.
"We're not saying everything is perfect," Maxey said. "There's room for improvement.
"I'd like the number of violations to be zero, but it's never going to be," Maxey said. "We're getting better, though. It's improving."
Maxey notes, for example, that his agency in July started a program of random inspections of logging operations.
Under this program, Forestry Division investigators will randomly inspect 150 logging jobs a year. Previously, logging inspections occurred only when citizens complained or state foresters happened to notice a particular timber job that looked like a problem.
"The results will more adequately indicate the degree of compliance than investigating only complaints," Maxey said, explaining the program in a letter criticizing Gazette articles about his agency.
Under state law, Maxey can fine loggers $2,500 for the first violation and $5,000 for any subsequent violations of the Logging Sediment Control Act. The Forestry Division must seek fines in circuit court in the county where the violation occurred. This has happened only once.
In July 1995, Delmas Stephens of West Virginia Timber and Veneer in Wayne, was fined $30,000. Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert G. Chafin ordered Stephens to halt all logging activities and complete a plan to control sediment discharges into creeks.
The Forestry Division sought fines against Stephens only after he was cited for repeated violations in 1993 and 1994, including dumping mud and tree tops into creeks and violating orders to suspend his timbering.
Stephens is the only logger the Forestry Division has asked a judge to fine. Maxey becomes especially defensive when asked why.
At first, Maxey pinned the problem on the state attorney general's office. Maxey said turnover there among lawyers representing the agency made it difficult for the Forestry Division to take enforcement actions.
More effective means
Recently, Maxey offered a more elaborate explanation.
"In the name of fairness, your investigative reporting should recognize that while only one logger, Delmas Stephens from Wayne County, has been prosecuted ($30,000) through the Circuit Court, the issuance of compliance and suspension orders has proven even more effective," Maxey said in his Nov. 26 letter to the Gazette.
"While the compliance orders have proven effective in addressing the sediment violation or potential for sediment to get in our streams, the suspension of operations order is estimated to cost the logging operation $4,300 per day and the logging job shut down indefinitely until the problem is corrected. I estimate a total of nearly $2 million cost for all suspension orders in each of the last two years.
"In addition, the DOF has suspended the timbering license of 10 logging companies, by law for from 30 to 90 days," Maxey wrote. "Essentially, this puts these companies out of business. Even the suspension orders have resulted in severe financial hardships for repeat violators.
"In spite of issuing 387 compliance orders and 189 suspension orders just within the first three quarters of 1996, DOF's measure of success is how many of these 1,400 companies we can keep working environmentally sound, using the best safety practices.
"Please note that suspension of timbering license was not resorted to until mid-1995," Maxey wrote.
"The reason, DOF tried working with the loggers early on and especially wished to defer such stringent measures until their education (training and certification) was completed," he wrote. "You will also note that there has been a marked increase in suspensions in 1996. It is important to realize that suspension of licenses most likely results in these companies going out of business permanently."
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