Bartow native and longtime forester Tom Cover was recently appointed by Governor Jim Justice to serve as Director of the West Virginia Division of Forestry following the untimely passing of Director Barry Cook in May. Justice appointed Cook to the position in 2017.
Cover began his forestry career while in high school – cutting pulpwood on weekends to make a little extra money. He went on to receive an Associate of Arts degree in Forestry from Potomac State College and a Bachelor of Science degree in Forest Management from West Virginia University.
While he did not compete on the forestry team in high school – it wasn’t formed, yet – Cover did have a connection with the program.
“It actually started with Mike Burns,” Cover said. “I think it had one year before that and then Mike took it over. Mike and I were in school together at West Virginia University.”
A seasoned forester, Cover has more than 40 years of experience in the industry. His full-time career began in 1976 with the West Virginia Division of Forestry as a CETA forester – a program designed to attract new foresters and provide them with experience to obtain employment in the field.
The following year, Cover became a procurement/logging forester with Allegheny Wood Products (AWP) where he worked his way through the ranks, eventually becoming one of AWP’s plan managers. In 1994, he moved on to become forest resource area manager with Georgia-Pacific.
When he left his position with Georgia-Pacific, Cover accepted a leadership role with the Division of Forestry in 2002.
Cover rose through the ranks and served as a regional forester for nearly two decades on the Leadership Team for the Division of Forestry.
He was planning to retire from that position this coming October when he was appointed by Justice to serve as director.
“We unfortunately lost our leader back in May, and I was hoping to retire with him still in place,” Cover admitted. “It was after he passed away, they asked me to take the job.”
With his retirement plans on hold for a few years, Cover said he hopes to continue to work in the same direction as Cook.
“Barry Cook really had this agency in the right direction – was doing a great job,” Cover said.
“My first goal is to steer the agency the way Barry was going. I hope to just continue to follow some of the things he started. And hope not to mess up.”
As director, Cover oversees the state’s forestry agency which is in charge of fighting and suppressing all forest fires and keeping reports on those fires; enforcing the Logging Sediment and Control Act (LSCA); and helping landowners manage and market their timber.
“We’re in charge of all logging operations to make sure they are done in a manner protective of the water,” Cover said. “We monitor the BMPs [Best Management Practices] on those jobs to make sure they’re done the correct way.”
The Division of Forestry is also in charge of the ginseng industry in the state, as well as investigations into timber theft.
“If you dig ginseng and you want to sell it, we have to certify it,” Cover said. “You don’t need a license or a permit, but you do need to be certified through us. Also you can’t dig ginseng on the forest service or state lands. If you are digging on private property, you have to have written permission.”
With timber theft, Cover explained it is usually cases where an individual takes a tree or two from private property to sell for profit.
“It’s usually just a small time operator that will go in and take the tree because he can make a few dollars off it,” he said.
“He usually just owns a trailer and has a power saw and he drops the tree in the middle of the night, puts it on his trailer and takes it somewhere later. If you get around to some of the remote areas, it’s pretty common.”
As with most industries, forestry in West Virginia has seen a decline in work and production due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Cover said state foresters and loggers will bounce back.
“Based on what we’re going through right now, the markets are down and a lot of them are struggling,” he said. “There are a lot of excellent opportunities for future growth in the division and in the industry. The industry is the only industry that is present in all fifty-five counties in the state, so we’re very fortunate that it employs a lot of people and provides a lot of opportunities.
Regardless of how long the state has to wait to get back to normal, Cover is positive the industry will continue to grow stronger.
“The one thing we’ve always seen is it will come back,” he said. “If you can weather the storm, it will come back. But don’t expect it to come back overnight – it’s grown slowly. When it does come back it will be strong.
“It’s unfortunate, but the one good thing about logging is that loggers are out there by themselves,” he continued. “They’re not around a lot of people, so it gives them an opportunity where they can [social distance].”
When the pandemic is over, the trees will still be there.
“The trees are still growing,” Cover said. “And they’re growing very nicely, so there’s not a panic that you have to cut the trees and get them out of the way. They will be there. The loggers – if they can hold on – they will be there.
“There will be lots of opportunities when we get back to the norm, but nobody knows when that is going to be,” he added.
In the meantime, Cover encourages all forest industry members to keep the faith and know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“When you look at West Virginia – being the third most forested state in the country – the opportunity is there,” he said. “I believe we can really jump on those opportunities. We’re going to survive.”
For more information on the Division of Forestry and its programs, visit wvforestry.com