Photo by Christopher Millette
Sites like this old timber job in Monongalia County are becoming more common. West Virginia loggers now cut twice as much timber as they did seven years ago.
By Ken Ward Jr.
HEATERS - U.S. 19 winds north from the Flatwoods Go-Mart, the Days Inn and the soon-to-be-opened outlet mall. Five miles up the road, past old farmhouses and weathered school bus stop shelters, sits West Virginia's newest timber giant.
The Weyerhaeuser plant dominates a huge clearing bordered by rolling Braxton County hills. It's big enough to cover a football field. It cost $150 million to build and employs 170 workers.
Eventually, the plant will chop up 900,000 tons of yellow poplar, sycamore and beech trees every year.
It will chip them into flakes, mix them with glue and press them into oriented strand board. OSB, a sturdy kind of particle board, is used for roofs, walls and floors in homes and offices.
Weyerhaeuser will churn out more than 500 million square feet of OSB every year.
That's enough to make 16 million 4-by-8-foot sheets, the kind you can buy at Lowe's for $8 or $10. It's roughly enough to make the roofs and walls for 100,000 homes, more than one for every family in Kanawha County.
Eighty miles down U.S. 19, Georgia-Pacific Corp.'s new OSB plant towers over the highway at Mount Hope in Fayette County. It gobbles up another 650,000 tons of West Virginia trees each year.
To the north in Buckhannon, Trus-Joist MacMillan chips up another quarter-million tons of trees per year to make construction beams.
Over in Mason County, Parsons & Whittemore Inc. wants to build a $1 billion pulp mill along the Ohio River. The pulp mill, with its 2.1 million-ton-per-year wood appetite, requires more than 2,000 acres of forest - an area larger than Blackwater Falls St ate Park - every month.
Clearly, the West Virginia timber industry is booming.
But historians, environmentalists, recreationists and some in the industry wonder how this will affect the state.
Will the forest be clearcut and the environment devastated as it was 100 years ago? Or have loggers learned from their mistakes? Will industry expansion finally bring factories that create more jobs for people who make things from wood? Or will a stream of trucks continue to haul lumber out of the mountains to North Carolina furniture factories?
An in-depth Charleston Gazette investigation has found:
- The amount of timber cut every year in West Virginia doubled between 1987 and 1994, to more than 1 billion board feet, according to the state Division of Forestry. In a few years, it could double again, to more than the 1909 record of 1.47 billion boar d feet, estimates former Forestry Director Bill Gillespie.
- While jobs in coal, chemicals and other heavy industries dropped, wood products and furniture employment grew from 6,700 workers to more than 8,100 between 1980 and 1992. Today, the total employed is about 10,000. Wood products is the only significant West Virginia manufacturing business in which employment increased in the 1980s.
- The new mills chew up wood that might otherwise be used to make furniture, or other "value-added" products that create more jobs and wealth. If the proposed Mason County pulp and paper mill is built, the percentage of the West Virginia timber harvest g oing to such facilities will more than double, to 44 percent.
- Loggers in West Virginia remain unregulated. The state suggests a set of "best management practices." But the loggers don't have to follow them. The state Division of Forestry, whose main job is to promote the industry, is also supposed to oversee logg ers.
- Most scientists agree more attention should be paid to how logging affects biodiversity: the kinds of trees, plants and animals forests contain now and in generations to come.
- Historians say logging from 1870 to 1920 was extremely harmful to the state's environment. Most believe statewide clearcutting led to devastating forest fires and widespread flooding.
- Outdoor enthusiasts and some in the tourism business worry that scarred hillsides and polluted streams will hurt efforts to bring whitewater rafters, skiers and other visitors to West Virginia.
"The situation is worse than we thought," said Jim Kotcon, a scientist and lobbyist for the West Virginia Sierra Club. "West Virginia's resources have been exploited for generations and this is just the latest step in that exploitation."
Bill Maxey, director of the state Forestry Division, wonders why environmentalists, newspaper reporters and other nonforesters keep criticizing the industry's growth.
More trees cut and more plants built means more jobs, more tax dollars and economic growth for the whole state, Maxey said.
"We've been trying to get this to happen for years and it's finally happening," Maxey said. "I see this as a good thing. I don't see it at all as a bad thing."
Still, some in the industry are concerned about what would happen if the state gets too many mills.
Gary White, former lobbyist for the West Virginia Coal Association, now manages timber and coal holdings for Mingo County businessman Buck Harless.
"Fundamentally, everyone needs to realize that these plants are a blessing to the state and to the business," White said. "If you don't get those lower-grade species out of the woods, they choke out the others.
"The other side of the coin is, we have to be careful that we don't get more of that capacity than our ability to produce that type of resource will serve.
"You'll get a guy with a chain saw and a pickup truck, and it's almost like the industry that's created with recycling, where you get people out picking up pop cans and some of the more entrepreneurial types stealing copper wire," White said.
David Craft, plant manager for Weyerhaeuser in Heaters, agreed the state should be careful.
"The real question is, how much more industry will we get in the state?" Craft said. "The people of this state, you and me and everybody else, need to decide if we would want five or six more mills like this one or a couple of pulp mills like the one in Mason County."
Forest for the treesWest Virginia's hills and hollows are home to some of the finest hardwood trees in the nation. Oak, cherry, poplar and maple cover the mountains.
The state's 15.4 million acres are roughly 78 percent forested. West Virginia is the third most forested state in the nation, behind only Maine and New Hampshire. Oregon contains forests on only 45.6 percent of its 28 million acres of land. California's 37 million acres are only about one-third forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
After the Forest Service last surveyed the state's timber in the late 1980s, experts raved about the abundance of valuable trees.
"Preliminary results of the new inventory show that forest land has increased by one-half million acres, or 4 percent, since the last survey was done in 1975," a 1990 Forest Service report concluded.
"Virtually all of the resource is capable of producing commercial crops of timber," the report said. "Timberland now accounts for more than 60 percent of the total land area in 48 of West Virginia's 55 counties."
West Virginia's hills were covered with 19 billion cubic feet of commercial size and species trees, the 1990 report estimated. The trees had grown by 37 percent since the 1975 Forest Service inventory.
David White, a longtime West Virginia University forestry professor, estimated there was enough wood to build 3 million average-sized homes or to provide every West Virginia family with 1,100 tons of firewood.
Between 1975 and 1987, three-quarters of West Virginia timberland wasn't logged, a 1992 Forest Service study said. Four-fifths of the timbering took place on only one-tenth of the total acreage.
"Even though the cut of West Virginia timber increased during the past decade, it remains far below potential," the study said. "The timber resource is certainly ripe for more cutting."
Increasing demandWhy has the West Virginia wood products industry grown so dramatically in the past few years?
- The state's forests have matured and recovered from the clearcutting that occurred a century ago. Many of West Virginia's hardwood trees are 80 years old, prime targets for loggers.
- New processes allow composite construction materials and paper to be made from hardwood trees that cover the state. In the past, these products were made from softwoods, such as Douglas fir and spruce, from other parts of the country.
- Logging restrictions in the Pacific Northwest, enacted in part to curb overcutting, pushed makers of paper and wood construction materials to the Appalachians.
The four new major wood plants operating or planned for West Virginia require a total of nearly 4 million tons of wood.
The mills double the demand for pulpwood in West Virginia. They require an 80 percent increase in the amount of timber cut across the state, according to Forest Service statistics.
Feeding them requires nearly 50,000 acres of forest every year. At that rate, an area the size of Putnam County would be cleared in less than five years.
Living off forest wasteCan the new mills survive mostly off waste from sawmills and wood left in the forest by loggers?
The state Division of Forestry and mill developers see three ways this might happen.
First, the mills could clean the woods of smaller trees that are too junky to be used at sawmills, they say.
"Everyone who has grown a garden knows you must weed it or the vegetables will be crowded out," Maxey said.
Second, they say, much of the wood for the pulp and chipboard mills could come from tops and other parts of felled trees loggers leave in the forest.
"There's 10 times more material being left in the forest than all of us can use," said Craft, the Weyerhaeuser plant manager. "Even if we can only use half of that, there's more than we all need."
The forestry division estimates that 8.4 tons of woody material per acre is left in the woods after conventional logging, or about 1.7 million tons a year statewide.
Weyerhaeuser wants to get about 60 percent or 70 percent of its raw material from such leftovers.
But at that rate, Weyerhaeuser alone would use more than 600,000 tons of the 1.7 million tons of woody material left by loggers. That would leave less than 1.1 million tons for all other mills.
Third, the forestry division says that as much as 40 percent of the Mason County pulp mill's raw material could come from woodchips, a byproduct of sawmills.
But a report co-authored by the state Division of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service concluded almost all of the sawmill chips in the state are already being used. Three-quarters of the chips are sold to out-of-state pulp mills, the report said. Chips are also sold or given away by sawmills to people in local communities for household fuel.
All but 10 percent of the 550 million cubic feet of sawmill waste produced in West Virginia every year is being used. Most of the unused portion is sawdust and bark the pulp mill could not use, said Ed Murriner, forest utilization expert with the Divisio n of Forestry.
Many sawmills in West Virginia lose money when they pay to have their chips shipped to out-of-state paper mills or hauled to a landfill. If the Mason County mill is built, Murriner predicts, these sawmills could break even or make a small profit selling chips to it.
Clearcutting the state?Can West Virginia keep its forests and sustain the logging boom?
In 1995, Owen Cox, a forestry graduate student at the University of Montana, tried to answer this question in his master's thesis.
Cox concluded the new mills require so many trees that more of West Virginia's forest will be clearcut to feed them.
Maxey called Cox's conclusion ridiculous.
"He just doesn't seem to be aware of the actual forestry concerns," Maxey said. "Eighty percent of the land in West Virginia is owned by private individuals. I don't think they're going to want their land clearcut, so that's a self-correcting situation ."
Actually, Cox assumed that most West Virginians don't want their forests clearcut. But a small number of individuals and corporations own most of the land. It's these large landowners, Cox says, who may clearcut the state.
A mix of clearcuts and thinnings could theoretically meet the new timber demand without increasing the 200,000 acres that are already cut every year in West Virginia, Cox said.
A Forest Service prescription for clearcuts and thinnings would require 130,000 of those acres clear cut. That's 65 times the amount the number of acres now clearcut annually.
Obviously, the same 130,000 acres can't be clearcut every year. The clearcutting would have to expand. The Division of Forestry assumes all 10.7 million acres of private timberland in the state is open to logging. Cox says this assumption is wrong.
A Forest Service survey found that owners of only 15 percent of all West Virginia timberland, about 1.6 million acres, report that they own timberland primarily for timber production, Cox said.
Owners of another 1 million acres, about 9 percent of all timberland, say that timber cutting is a secondary reason for owning their land. Of all owners who have cut timber at some time in the past, only 28 percent cut commercial timber. Seventy-nine per cent cut firewood for personal use.
But Cox also pinpointed 100 West Virginia timberland owners who each hold 5,000 acres or more and who expect to cut timber in the next 10 years. They control more than 2.5 million acres of timberland, about 23 percent of the state's privately owned fores ts, Cox wrote.
If the Forest Service prescription is applied to this land, 1.1 million acres could be clearcut. This could produce nearly 43 million tons of pulpwood, enough to supply the four new mills for 10 years.
But Cox warns these numbers are only theoretical. They are based only on potential, on-paper timber supplies. They don't factor in possible environmental impacts. They don't consider whether the public would like it.
"With the growth in pulpwood demand, the ecosystem may be further fragmented by clearcuts," Cox wrote. "Immature trees are being cut, high-impact logging methods are compacting soil, destroying riparian areas and filling streams with mud."
The new mills may not be a good idea economically either, Cox concluded.
"From the commercial perspective, as much as 80 percent more wood will be harvested to meet the new pulpwood demand," Cox wrote.
"This could lead to commercial stand improvement through thinnings and regeneration clearcuts," Cox wrote. "Also possible, however, is the conversion of productive, easily harvested sites to short-rotation, pulpwood harvests."
This conversion might be good in the short term. Landowners would be able to sell their trees more often. But it might also mean the end of 80-year-old trees that can be made into furniture, Cox said.
"We're at a crossroads," said Hugh Irwin, an organizer with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition. "Are we going to allow massive logging again and exploit the region for its resources again?
"A lot of times, not enough questions are asked and people don't see the long-term consequences of short-term economic gains," Irwin said. "We believe there is a role for timber production in the state, but it should be sustainable."