By Ken Ward Jr.
The fate of a big hunk of West Virginia's forests is in the hands of a very few people.
More than 260,000 West Virginians own a share of the state's nearly 11 million acres of forest land.
But just a half of 1 percent of those owners control more than a third of the forests. Just 100 corporations own more than 18 percent of the forests.
West Virginia timber industry backers like to tout the fact that the state's timber land is owned by tens of thousands of private citizens.
To hear Bill Maxey, director of the state Division of Forestry, talk, all of the state's trees are owned by elderly couples or working-class people who inherited land from their grandparents.
Efforts to regulate the timber industry, timber backers say, amount to interference with private property rights of those citizens.
"Some environmental extremists want to regulate what individual landowners can do with their own property," says a newspaper ad published by the West Virginia Forestry Association. "These anti-business radicals would actually require all landowners to ob tain permits to use any trees on their own property."
A U.S. Forest Service report, released last month, paints a different picture of who owns West Virginia forests. It shows the well-known pattern of most of West Virginia's resources being concentrated in the hands of a few people.
"You've got a very large number of owners who own a small portion and a very small number of owners who own a large portion," said Tom Birch, a Forest Service analyst who wrote the report. "That's the general pattern."
Among the findings of Birch's report:
- West Virginia has about 10.7 million acres of private forest land. About 80 percent of the state is forested.
- The state's forests are owned by 260,400 individuals, corporations, families and trusts. About 250,000 of those owners are individuals. Another 3,800 are corporations. The average ownership per owner, whether private individual or corporation, is about 41 acres.
- Owners - individual and corporate - who own 1,000 acres or more of forest land control 3.2 million acres. They constitute only 0.19 percent of owners, but hold more than 30 percent of the state's forests.
- More than 142,000 of the individual owners hold less than 10 acres of forest land each. Another 91,400 individual owners hold less than 100 acres each. Another 11,400 individual owners control between 100 and 199 acres each.
- Overall, 251,400 individual owners, about 97 percent of all owners, control 7 million acres of forest, about 67 percent of West Virginia's timber land.
- About 800 individuals own more than 500 acres of forest each. They own a total of 818,000 acres, about 8 percent of the state's forests.
- If you add in all owners who own 500 acres or more, 1,500 owners control 3.8 million. This 0.5 percent of landowners control nearly 36 percent of West Virginia's forests.
- West Virginia has 3,800 corporate forest owners that control nearly 2.6 million acres of forest, about one quarter of the state's timberland.
- There are 100 corporate owners who own 5,000 acres or more of timberland. This 0.04 percent of forest owners holds nearly 2 million acres of forest, more than 18 percent of the state's total timberland.
- There are 200 corporate owners who hold 1,000 or more acres of timberland. They control 2.3 million acres of forest, or more than one-fifth of the state's timberland.
Write a letter to the editor.