Combined Efforts Secure Division’s Future

Tom Cover
Director/State Forester West Virginia Division of Forestry

I am pleased to report that the Division’s financial future looks much brighter than it did a year ago, thanks to the combined efforts of Governor Jim Justice, Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch, the Division, the West Virginia Forestry Association, and the West Virginia Legislature. The Division is now fully funded for this year and the next!

The agency’s financial insecurity began after the repeal of the timber severance tax in 2016. Taxing the state’s only renewable resource hindered growth and economic opportunities for the forest-products industry. The repeal did, however, eliminate the Division’s main revenue stream used to support its daily operations, placing the future of the Division in limbo and at a distinct disadvantage over the past five years.

Unfortunately, our fears of not meeting payroll through the fiscal year were realized this year when the timber market was drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although this was not a new problem, the Division enjoyed the assistance of a new alliance. Governor Justice, Commerce Cabinet Secretary Ed Gaunch, and the West Virginia Forestry Association (WVFA) advocated for the Division to replace the special revenue funding eliminated by the severance tax repeal with general revenue funding. The Division also found that it had many friends at the West Virginia Legislature. Not only were lawmakers supportive of the Division, but many of them actively worked to ensure the Division’s funding needs were met. Securing this funding will result in the Division accomplishing several long-term goals, especially making certain that most of the Division employees will be paid from the stable general revenue, instead of fluctuating special revenue funds.

The Division has never been able to offer competitive wages when compared to industry positions, but job stability and state benefits at least afforded the Division the opportunity to be considered as a potential employer. Since the severance tax repeal, the Division has struggled to not only attract new employees, but also to maintain the current ones. With the uncertainty of future funding, several great employees moved on to more stable positions and most young graduates looked to the Division for employment mostly as a last resort. Let’s face it; while the forest-products industry is a major economic driver in West Virginia providing billions to the state’s economy, the actual number of persons working in the forestry field is small and tight-knit. Even the best kept secrets travel quickly. So, the Division’s financial uncertainty was known to almost everyone. I am hopeful that the Division’s improved financial condition travels just as quickly, so the Division can again be a front-runner in hiring the best and brightest West Virginia has to offer in the forestry field.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to express our gratitude to Governor Justice, Secretary Gaunch, WVFA, Delegate Eric Householder (House Finance Chairman), and Senator Eric Tarr (Senate Finance Chairman) for their support in the passage of House Bill No. 2803 and House Bill No. 2022. Because of their efforts, the state of the Division is sound.