Photos by Christopher Millette
Timber jobs like this one outside Morgantown may comply with the state's voluntary environmental protection guidelines, but critics say those rules don't go far enough.
By Ken Ward Jr.
DELLSLOW - The old railroad grade southeast of Morgantown used to pass through a dense forest. Local hikers planned to turn it into a trail.
Then loggers came, and on a day last June, it was a mess of muddy, rut-filled timber roads and leftover treetops and branches. Bits of dirt tumbled slowly into a tiny stream that feeds nearby Deckers Creek.
The forest will probably come back. West Virginia hardwoods sprout quickly from seeds and stumps. Trees, of course, are a renewable resource.
This timber job probably followed the state's voluntary best management practices for reducing environmental damage. In fact, the operator, Allegheny Wood Products, is complimented widely as one of the best in the state.
But Richard diPretoro, a Morgantown geologist and environmental activist, says this old timber job shows that, even when loggers comply with the state's current, voluntary rules, they are under-regulated compared to other businesses.
Richard diPretoro, a Morgantown geologist, says the timber in West Virginia is under-regulated compared to strip mining.
DiPretoro heads Living Forests, a project of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. The group examines timber jobs to find out if the state's voluntary guidelines are working. So far, the conclusion is they aren't.
Take one example from this Monongalia County timber job:
"They mulched the road, and that's a best management practice," diPretoro said. "But it's washed away. So there's definitely a buildup of sediment here that's going to end up in the stream."
Or consider a more general concern:
All coal operators are required to return land they strip mine to its "approximate original contour." They have to reclaim the land to specific standards set up by federal and state agencies. Timber companies can leave land they log any way they want. There are no requirements for reclamation.
If state regulators look at a coal company permit application and determine the environmental damage from the operation would be too severe, they can deny the application. The state Division of Forestry, which has primary authority over timber operators, can't stop logging before it begins.
Bill Maxey, director of the state Division of Forestry, says his agency doesn't need any more power to regulate loggers.
"We've got enough regulations to choke a horse now," Maxey says. "I don't believe in passing a law just to pass a law.
"I don't believe in laws to force these landowners to do things," Maxey says. "It's private property rights. People don't put enough value on that anymore.
"You'd think that the Russian experiment, with 50 years of communal lawmaking would show you," he said. "The more laws you put on, the closer you get to a socialist system. I think our democratic system is better."
Compare the rules
Done wrong, logging can devastate streams. Water runoff picks up soil and packs streams with sediment. Fish and other aquatic life can be killed. Banks can be left bare and open to erosion.
But like most Appalachian and southern states, West Virginia relies on the good-faith efforts of loggers to protect the environment.
Loggers are asked to follow a set of best management practices to prevent these problems. These so-called BMPs are strictly voluntary. State officials can't make loggers comply. Regulators can move in only after timbering has started and the damage is done.
Environmental activists have for years called for real regulation of the state's timber industry. They have called louder in the last few years. The amount of timber cut in West Virginia has doubled since 1987 and continues to increase.
"Compared to its potential to create environmental damage, timber is under-regulated," diPretoro said. "I would like to see them held to a higher standard for the way they treat the land."
Many environmental groups are especially concerned that the Division of Forestry, which is supposed to oversee loggers, is also charged by law with promoting the growth of wood products businesses.
"We've got an agency trying to serve two contradictory missions," said Jim Kotcon, lobbyist for the West Virginia Sierra Club.
"They are supposed to both promote the growth of any industry and regulate its on-the-ground effects," Kotcon said. "It is practically and ideologically impossible to do both of those things well."
L. Thomas Galloway, a top national environmental lawyer and professor at the University of Colorado, said, "The environmental impacts of logging and mining are substantially similar, yet there is no effective regulation of logging.
"There is no extensive permitting process," Galloway said. "There is no provision for public participation. There are no detailed standards to control the environmental impacts of logging."
Compare the few rules that apply to timber operations to those that cover coal companies, chemical plants and dozens of other types of polluters:
- Before a coal company can open a strip mine or a chemical company send anything out of its stack, they have to apply for and receive permits from state or federal environmental agencies. This process can take months, or even years.
Timber operators simply file a notice with the state Division of Forestry that they plan to cut down trees. The notice can be filed up to three days after the cutting actually started.
- Permit applications for coal companies and chemical plants are advertised in the newspaper so citizens can take part in required public comment periods or public hearings.
Loggers don't have to advertise the start of a timber job publicly. There is no avenue for the public to be involved.
- Under federal law, anyone who has a water pollution or mining permit has to post a sign with the name of the company that holds the permit and the permit number. The signs must be within sight of a public road so citizens can see who is operating a polluting facility, without trespassing.
State regulations require timber operators to put a sign somewhere on their job site. But the sign can be something as simple as a marker on the back of a piece of an old cardboard box. Logging operation signs do not have to be in plain view. Many are taped to the side of logging equipment, where citizens would never see them.
- Government regulators review coal company and chemical plant plans to make sure they can meet state and federal environmental limits. Coal operators have to provide detailed plans for how they will prevent water pollution. Chemical plants have to show they are using the most advanced pollution control equipment possible.
Loggers must only turn in a form on which they check off which of 14 different "best management practices" they plan to follow to prevent water pollution. Loggers are asked to explain why they won't use BMPs that they don't check off. Loggers do not have to use any of the BMPs, so the Forestry Division has little recourse if loggers say they don't intend to do so.
- Coal companies have to post bonds of between $1,000 to $5,000 per acre for reclamation of strip mines. If the companies don't clean up their sites, the bond money can be used for reclamation. The amount of the bond depends on the specific mine site's potential for environmental damage.
Timber companies are not required to post any sort of bonds.
- Under state and federal law, strip coal mines must be inspected at least 12 times a year. At least four of those must be complete inspections of the entire operation.
Timber operators might cut down an entire stand of trees without ever seeing a state inspector. There is no requirement for periodic inspections. Forestry Division inspectors are required only to investigate any complaints they receive.
Apples and oranges?
Dick Waybright, lobbyist for the West Virginia Forestry Association, opposes any type of mandatory regulation of timber operators in West Virginia. Such regulations would be unfair to timber landowners, Waybright says.
"The basic difference is that timber is owned by the landowners and the landowners should have some say in the way they harvest their resource," Waybright said.
"We're working with a renewable resource," Waybright said. "Coal operators are working with a resource that is basically used up. It's basically kind of a landowners' rights issue."
Maxey, the state Forestry Division director, agrees it is unfair to compare regulation of timber to coal or other industries that can pollute the environment.
"It's like comparing apples to oranges," Maxey said. "It's light years apart.
"For one thing, timber is a renewable resource. Cutting it doesn't destroy the resource," Maxey said. "If properly done, as it is now, it doesn't do the damage that a surface mine does."
Maxey noted that farming disturbs the land a couple of times a year for plowing and planting, while timbering disturbs the land perhaps only once every quarter-century.
Joel Stopha, a wood products marketing specialist with the Appalachian Hardwood Center at West Virginia University, agrees with Maxey.
Stopha doesn't believe that timber cutting poses the same kind of threats for long-term, large-scale environmental damage that coal mines, especially strip mines, do.
Take acid mine drainage, for example.
Stopha said coal companies have little control over whether mining exposes minerals that, when combined with water and air, produce acid mine drainage. The only recourse for operators is to treat mine drainage once it is produced, a proposition that can become so expensive it forces companies into bankruptcy.
"But with timber, if you use proper drainage techniques and use best management practices, then you're controlling where the water runs and how fast it runs and where it ends up," Stopha said.
Even poor timber harvesting practices will cause only a few years of water quality problems, Stopha said. With coal mining, the disturbance can last for decades, or even centuries, he said.
Stopha also opposes requiring timber operators to receive permits that require state agencies to scrutinize timber operations or require public comment on timber cutting before it starts.
Such requirements would put West Virginia timber companies at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding states, Stopha said. They would also take too much time, Stopha said.
"If a coal company is going to go in and mine somewhere, they're going to be there a while," Stopha said. "Timber guys go in and work on a 50-acre piece of land and they're done in two weeks.
"If you require permits in the state of West Virginia, you're going to make timber operators in the state of West Virginia non-competitive with Kentucky and Virginia," Stopha said. "And if it becomes too much of a problem to harvest timber in the state, you're going to shut it down."
Timber industry officials point to West Virginia's law, with voluntary logging guidelines, as their model legislation. Some other states are looking to enact similar rules.
In others, such as Kentucky and Tennessee, environmental groups are pushing for tougher rules.
Gov. Paul Patton of Kentucky announced earlier this fall that he will support legislation to require loggers in that state to use best management practices that are currently voluntary.
Patrick C. McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor who teaches environmental law, said competition among timber businesses is the perfect reason to tighten regulations.
"With competition being what it is, what business owner would take it upon themselves to spend a substantial amount of money to follow the best management practices and give others out there who don't do it a competitive advantage?" McGinley said.
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