By KEN WARD Jr.
MOUNT HOPE -- Every day, 90 trucks full of West Virginia trees pull into the woodyard behind Georgia-Pacific Corp.'s new timber plant in Fayette County.
Computer-controlled machines chop up the trees, mix in some glue, and press the trees into thin, flat pieces of a chipboard called oriented strand board, or OSB.
In a year's time, Georgia-Pacific can turn 8,000 acres of West Virginia forest into 325 million square feet of OSB, enough to make floors for more than 150,000 homes.
Weyerhaueser opened its own OSB mill at Heaters in Braxton County earlier this year. Trus-Joist MacMillan opened a fabricated construction beam factory in Buckhannon in mid-1995.
These three projects, along with proposed Mason County pulp and paper mill, are driving the largest timber boom in West Virginia history.
Weyerhaeuser, for example, employs about 170 full-time workers. The plant cost $150 million to build, has an annual payroll of $5 million and a $25 million yearly economic impact on Braxton County and the surrounding area, according to company estimates.
With the addition of its OSB mill, Georgia-Pacific now employs nearly 350 people in West Virginia. The company also owns hardwood sawmills in Rainelle, Richwood and Green Valley. Georgia-Pacific officials estimate the company's operations produce another 1,400 spinoff jobs and make wood products worth more than $260 million a year.
If Parsons & Whittemore Inc. spends more than $1 billion to build a pulp and paper mill at Apple Grove in Mason County, the state could not only get 600 new jobs, but a $600 million annual boost to the state economy.
Most experts cite three major reasons why these plants are looking to West Virginia:
The state's roughly 12 million acres of hardwoods have grown back from massive, turn-of-the-century clearcutting. Much of the state's forests are 80- to 100-year-old trees ripe for loggers.
Overcutting of timber in the Pacific Northwest brought logging restrictions that cut off much of the supply of pine forests for plywood. Similar overcutting in some southern states has put a dent in pine forests that used to feed the pulp and paper industry.
New technologies allow pulp and paper companies and wood products plants to make paper and chipboard materials with hardwoods plentiful in the state.
Numerous economists and forest watchers have projected for years that the composite construction materials in particular were a way West Virginia could increase its forest products industry.
A landmark 1987 series of reports by West Virginia University's Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station concluded, "Perhaps the greatest potential for large-scale expansion of West Virginia's wood products industry is associated with structural composite panels and fiberboard."
"These industries have tremendous growth prospects with large increases in consumption and production expected within the very near future," the series stated.
"West Virginia, with its tremendous supply of yellow poplar and other medium-density hardwoods should be in an ideal position to benefit from the development of these new products."
Already, the effects of the new mills are being seen.
The state cut twice as much timber in 1995 as it did in 1987, according to estimates from the state Division of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service
The three mills already built, along with the paper mill, could double the percentage of West Virginia trees that are ground up for low-value pulpwood products.
Boosters say the mills will make use of smaller, poor quality "junk" trees, like yellow poplar and cucumber, that generally aren't valuable enough to take to sawmills for use as furniture. They say cutting the junk trees will open up the forest for good quality hardwoods to grow.
Critics disagree. They say the new mills will clearcut the existing forests, then turn them into tree farms of tiny, low-grade lumber. To feed the new mills, trees will be cut more often. They won't have time to grow as big. Mature forests with lots of kinds of trees and animals won't have time to develop.
Joel Stopha is a wood products marketing specialist with the West Virginia University Appalachian Hardwood Center.
Stopha said that, on a statewide scale, the new chipboard mills don't use as much wood as critics would have the public believe.
Sure, Stopha said, the new mills might require the forest area equivalent the size of Putnam County within five years. But, he said, that amounts in forestry terminology to a 220-year rotation. A single parcel of forest would be timbered only once every 220 years to meet that need, Stopha said.
Rick Landenberger, an environmental activist and forestry graduate student at WVU, said Stopha's figures don't tell the whole story either.
"There are all kinds of assumptions that go into those rotation calculations," Landenberger said.
"What size and age trees are you talking about? Are you going to be clearcutting or what?" Landenberger said. "The question is, how are you going to get the volume and what kind of cutting are you going to use to get that volume?"
Write a letter to the editor.