Laura Dean Bennett
The Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation and the Pocahontas County Chamber of Commerce hosted a Timber Industry Roundtable Thursday at the Edray Industrial Park. The event brought together a panel of experts in the field of forestry to discuss the future of the timber industry in Pocahontas County and how it might impact the economy
More than 50 people attended the event, including the Pocahontas County High School forestry class and their instructor, Scott Garber.
Marlinton Mayor Sam Felton was the moderator.
“As Pocahontas County is located in the heart of some of the most abundant and valuable hardwood forests in the state and the country, timber – a renewable natural resource – has always been one of our most valued assets,” Felton said. “Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. But we are fortunate to have on this panel today, timber industry specialists from whom we can learn a lot.”
The panel consisted of :
Barry Cook, Director/State Forester, WV Forestry Division, WV Dept. of Commerce
Joe McNeel, Director, Appalachian Hardwood Center, West Virginia University
Robbie Morris, Executive Director Randolph County Development Authority and West Virginia Hardwood Alliance Zone
Kelly Riddle, Vice-President of Forest Resources, Allegheny Wood Products, Inc.
Clyde Thompson, Supervisor, Monongahela National Forest
John Wayne, Consultant, Forester and Surveyor
Before the roundtable discussion got underway, GVEDC Executive Director Andrew Hagy delivered some good economic news about White Sulphur Springs and the local timber industry.
A $27.4 million dollar wood products manufacturing venture by the West Virginia Great Barrel Company will be built at the Caldwell/White Sulphur Springs exit off I-64. The proposed 90,000 square foot facility will house the operation to build white oak bourbon barrels.
The first question that Felton posed to the panelists was how much timber is available for commercial use here in our area.
Riddle said there is plenty of timber here, although a majority of Pocahontas County’s forests are state and federally managed.
There have been very few timber sales on the Monongahela in the past several years, but Cook said the state is stepping up sales on its lands.
“Virtually no harvesting for the past twenty-to-twenty-five years has been detrimental to the health of our forests,” Cook said. “Making more timber available for purchase will help return the forest environment to being well-balanced and well-managed.”
The Monongahela is often compared to the Allegheny National Forest which has 600,000 acres and spends much more on managing the forest than Monongahela National Forest, Thompson said. The Monongahela which has 900,000 acres, has a significantly smaller budget.
“It makes it tough to cover all the issues that need to be addressed,” he said.
In addition to timbering, there are many other jobs connected to managing the national forest, such as clearing non-invasive species and building culverts, etc.
“I’d like to see an integrated approach to using our national forests – bringing in people interested in the environment, in preservation, in species habitat, in hunting and fishing, recreation as well as the timber industry,” Thompson added.
The panelists said timbering is essential to optimum management of the forest landscape – not just for the benefit of the timber industry and our economy, but for wildlife habitat, for hunting and for fishing.
“When timbering goes up, our wildlife numbers go up too.”
“I’d like to be shooting for harvesting 63,000,000 board feet per year as opposed to the now 11,000,000 board feet we are harvesting now. We just need the will to do it and the budget for personnel to properly manage it.”
When it comes to establishing a new business or expanding an existing one, Morris said, it is a tough challenge. Processes and products change so fast, it is like trying to hit a moving target.
You have to keep up with the latest trend.
“You’re always trying to play catch up with what companies are looking for,” he said. “Right now the latest trend is spec buildings, like this building you have right here in Edray.
Then there’s resource-driven manufacturing versus product-driven manufacturing.
Timber is resource driven – the closer the manufacturing plant can locate to its resource, the better, Riddle said.
Transportation can be critical to the decision-making process. In our mountainous, back roads area, it can present a challenge.
“If you build it, they will come” can be a scary premise. It requires constant marketing.
“We have the advantage of an educated population, but how many times have we seen trained forestry students having to go someplace else in the country to get work?” McNeel asked.
“I’m looking at several trained forestry students here, but they are going to need opportunities for employment here in West Virginia if we are going to be able to keep them at home.”
High quality red oak, which is one of the most abundant species in Pocahontas County, is the mainstay in furniture, moldings, cabinets, flooring. The lesser grades go into pallets and railroad ties.
But here’s the problem,” McNeel said, “what we do with our quality hardwood. Most if it is exported. Stats from 2016 show that forty-five percent of our better grades are being exported, and a significant amount to China.”
“China’s emerging middle class is using eighty percent of our lumber and our logs,” Riddle added. “That’s where the market is. There’s not enough demand in the U.S. Canada and Mexico to provide a market for our timber. The predominant furniture manufacturing industry is in Southeast Asia now.”
China doesn’t have the hardwood species that we have, and they want our logs. An important consideration is that Asian markets use the metric system in their manufacturing processes, and it’s a disadvantage to them production-wise, and to us financially, that our lumber is not sawn in metric sizes.
“The global economy we are in really needs to be taken into consideration,” Morris said.
Felton asked if there were incentives for developing new timber products.
McNeel said the Small Business Innovation Research project will help with startup funding of up to $100,000 for creative new businesses. But it’s not easy to get these grants. There’s a lot of paperwork, and you have to prove that your company has a unique business model.
Felton then asked what efforts could be initiated to increase timber sales?
Cook said it would require lobbying our state and federal legislatures.
In addition to upping timber sales, Wayne said that DEP, OSHA and worker’s comp need to be streamlined. Regulations and high insurance and worker’s comp rates are deterrents to logging operators, and in the meantime, the forest is growing twice as fast as it is being harvested.
Felton concluded the event by asking panelists where the focus of the timber industry should be now.
“The focus of the forest service is to increase our timber harvest from its current level of 11 million board feet annually to 30 million board feet, and eventually, I could see an annual harvest of 63 million board feet per year,” Thompson said. “But at the same time, we also need to keep our focus on also preserving a healthy wildlife habitat, encouraging fishing and hunting habitat and doing more botany surveys. This will all require more personnel and bigger budgets, and the budget is our next greatest barrier. But we’re pushing hard on these issues, and we’d welcome the support of the timber industry and the public. After all, the forests belong to the people and we are trying hard to be the best stewards of the forest we can be.”
The event was a fruitful beginning to the ongoing discussion that will be taking place about the prospects and promise of the timber and wood products industry here in Pocahontas County.