West Virginia Can’t Afford to Miss Opportunities

By Barry L. Cook
Director/State Forester
West Virginia Division of Forestry

Like most West Virginians, I have spent the last few years listening to news relating to the State’s budget crisis. However, it wasn’t until I was appointed by Governor Jim Justice to lead the West Virginia Division of Forestry that I had the opportunity to consider how the forest industry can contribute to the state’s come-back.

Since the West Virginia Division of Forestry is responsible for the sound sylvicultural and sustainable management of the State forestlands, one of the first things I did after my appointment was visit all the State Forest properties. I found much of our beautiful timberlands in an overmature state. Overmature forests, like unpicked agriculture crops, stop healthy growth or lose commercial value I began to ask myself why our forests haven’t been managed more effectively. Was it because of opposition to harvesting? Was it because of limited resources? A lack of manpower? I suspect that it is a combination of all those things.

Although forests are always at risk of wildfire, overmature forests have a much greater risk due to the accumulation of fuel on the forest floor and the lack of access created through managed harvesting. The indisputable fact is that younger, healthier trees have a better chance of survival. only confirms the necessity of properly managing our forestlands.

For far too many years, West Virginia’s has not harvested timber sufficient to promote healthy forestlands and avoid the potential for major fire devastation. Therefore, the West Virginia Division of Forestry has begun an aggressive but responsible harvesting plan. Our plan provides for the removal of overmature, diseased and inferior quality species, while allowing younger, healthier trees to continue to grow so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy and benefit from healthy forestlands that grow faster, sequester more carbon-dioxide, and provide our wildlife with adequate cover and plentiful food sources.

Normally I would say that it is no secret that young, healthy timber stands are more beneficial than overmature timber stands but maybe that it is the problem. Maybe it is a secret. That’s why we must do a better job educating the public on the benefits of forestlands comprised of young, healthy, growing trees. We must make a concerted effort to teach the public the importance of implementing a sound forestry management practice that will ensure that West Virginians can enjoy the benefits of one of our most precious natural resources for generations to come.

At a time when West Virginia — like many other states and even countries these days — faces tight financial conditions, why has the State missed the opportunity to capitalize on its natural timber growth? Our forestlands have the potential to be one of our State’s greatest economic development opportunities. Our latest estimate revealed a timber reserve on all timberland in the State of approximately 60 billion board feet of prime hardwood species worth nearly $12 billion.

Why has one of its major cash crops been allowed to rot away on the forest floor where it could literally go up in smoke? For these reasons, the West Virginia Division of Forestry is committed to restoring our forest to a healthy resource that will be available for future generations and cashing in on the revenue stream that West Virginia has been denied for decades.