By Barry L. Cook
Director, West Virginia Division of Forestry
It’s hard to believe that a full year has passed since I was appointed by Governor Jim Justice to oversee the operations of the West Virginia Division of Forestry. It has been a year of change.
When I arrived, the Division was facing several challenges, including the layoffs of several seasoned and dedicated foresters. Although the remaining employees were understandably concerned, I found their work ethic and dedication to the residents of West Virginia to be unwavering. They not only performed their tasks with zeal, but they were going above and beyond the call of duty. They really were doing more with less – a goal that most citizens want from their government. Therefore, I immediately started working with my Leadership Team to fill positions that were eliminated by the layoffs, pay foresters a better wage and afford foresters the ability to earn overtime to complete projects and provide much needed services not only to our citizens but also the forest products industry.
I also found that previous administrations converted state coverage areas from six districts to just three regions in an attempt to save money. I immediately recognized that these newly established regions were too large to not only effectively manage our state forestlands but also serve the citizens. Since the Division had kept all six offices either as regional or satellite offices, there was not any significant cost savings realized by the consolidation. The only real accomplishment was limiting citizen access to the Division – an apparent unintended consequence. Additionally, the Division had converted from a “service forester” concept to a “specialized forester” concept. Foresters often found themselves driving right past job locations that they could have easily checked but because of the “specialized forester” designation, he or she was prohibited from doing so. Being eligible to work only on assignments specific to wildfire, logging, or landowner assistance meant that foresters often passed each other on the road. It did not take long to recognize that this was not the most effective use of the forester’s time or limited state revenue. Therefore, I determined that converting back to a “service forester” designated was the best use of not only our talent but also our tax dollars.
Additionally, I was dismayed at what I found upon personal inspection of our state forest properties. For decades, West Virginia’s State Forests had not harvested timber sufficient to promote healthy forestlands and avoid the potential for major fire devastation. In 1985, the West Virginia Legislature through its creation of the Division recognized that our state forest should benefit from state-of-the-art forest management on a multiple-use basis. Therefore, I immediately appointed a forester designated to overseeing an aggressive but responsible harvesting plan that provides for the removal of over-mature, diseased and inferior species, while maintaining younger, healthier trees. This initiative is so vital to fulfilling the mission of the Division, I recently created a full-time Assistant State Forester position assigned solely to overseeing the successful implementation of sound silvicultural management practice on our state forest properties.
The Legislature also recognized in its enactment creating the Division the need to develop new marketing aimed at increasing public awareness of the advantages of forest resources in West Virginia. It was quickly determined by my Leadership Team that the Division had not gone far enough to educate the public on the importance and benefits of implementing a sound management practice on our forestlands. This is such an integral part of the Division’s function, I recently named an Assistant State Forester focused solely on educating the public on the importance of a sound forestland management practice that will ensure that West Virginian’s can enjoy the benefits of one our most precious resources for generations to come.
I also spent much of my time over the past year working with the forest products industry. Specifically, I have worked with Governor Justice to reduce the 9 percent surcharge assessed on logging operators. This astronomical surcharge forced logging companies to be creative in their hiring practices just to be able to afford to stay in business; therefore, I was ecstatic when the Legislature passed House Bill No. 4628 removing the surcharge on ALL West Virginia businesses effective Dec. 31, 2018. This landmark legislation should result in more affordable workers’ compensation rates that will provide coverage to a forest products industry that has virtually been denied insurance for years.
Although this significant reduction in workers’ compensation costs is a step in the right direction, it still does not go far enough to retain or attract logging companies. We must do more to assure that West Virginia is competitive with the same or similar rates available in other states. While working with forest industry leaders, it was made known to me that the Heartland Intermodal Gateway Yard at Pritchard, West Virginia, was being underutilized. Working with a freight forwarder, I secured validation of Heartland Intermodal Gateway as a viable inland port. It is imperative that we continue to work with the all relevant parties to provide 40-foot containers at an affordable rate not only for the forest products industry but for all West Virginia businesses with export needs. The ability to get our products to market more quickly and efficiently is crucial to growing our economy and creating jobs; therefore, I am committing to continuing to work on this initiative until the Intermodal Gateway Yard is functioning at its maximum potential to support West Virginia’s import and export needs.
The first 40-foot container is expected to arrive in early May.
Although we have made great strides in improving the operations of the Division, there is still room for improvement. I expect the next year to bring continued advancements regarding employee morale and working conditions; a full implementation of a sound silvicultural management practice on state properties; improved public awareness; and continued development of a working relationship with both industry leaders and other agencies responsible for similar outcomes. Additionally, you can expect improvements in managing and documenting logging operations through a new innovative drone program; the creation of a Special Operations Unit designed to protect our forestlands from destruction and assist landowners regarding timber thief; and a significant review and development of necessary agency policies geared toward promoting safety and protecting our state’s natural resources and assets.
In closing, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank the hard-working, dedicated employees of the Division for their acceptance, guidance and support over the past year. I am very excited about how far we have come but I am even more excited about where we are headed in the second year. I can’t image that any of our recent accomplishments would have been possible without you.