Governor Justice Has Plan for State Parks: Timberrrrrr!

By John McFerrin

A bill to allow commercial logging in West Virginia’s State Parks has been introduced in the West Virginia Legislature.  The bill, Senate Bill 270 (SB270) and House Bill 4182 (HB4182), was introduced at the request of Governor Justice. This bill would end an 80-year ban on logging in West Virginia’s State Parks.

If the bill becomes law, West Virginia plans to borrow fifty million dollars to use on park maintenance.  It will then cut enough timber each year to make the payments on the loan.

The Governor and supporters of the bill contend two things.  First, they contend that we need the money for maintenance of the Parks.  They contend that we have not consistently kept up with maintenance in the past so that now the Parks are deteriorating and need a substantial sum of money to repair.

Supporters also contend that some logging is necessary to maintain the health of the forests in State Parks.

Supporters contend that the logging will be limited and unobtrusive.  The bill allows logging as part of “a sound silvicultural management plan.”  It also restricts the logging by saying, “Any prescriptions written relating to timber harvesting shall not exceed the average of four trees per acre per tract nor more than one half of the merchantable timber volume of the acre. Only trees with a circumference of at least sixteen inches based on the diameter at breast height, may be harvested.”

The bill leaves many questions unanswered.  Its restriction of four trees per acre is an average for the entire tract being considered for timbering.  With a large tract, many more trees could be cut on individual acres and still meet the bill’s average of four trees per acre.  Neither does it address the problems that come with logging, particularly the roads that would have to be built to reach the trees to be cut.  The bill also leaves out any definition of “sound” management.  It is left for the Director of the Department of Natural Resources and the Director of Forestry to decide. Forest health, wildlife, clean water, and recreation are not mentioned in the bill as requirements of the management plan.

The bill also does not specify which Parks would lose their timber.  In interviews, public officials have identified the larger Parks such as Watoga, Cacapon, Lost River, Holly River, Twin Falls, and Cedar Creek.  These Parks are big enough that, according to officials, the logging could be far enough away from the parts that are most heavily used to be less obtrusive.

A proposal so radical as to reverse eighty plus years of law and policy is not without its critics.

Critics say that it has long been the policy that Parks were to be preserved for recreation and wildlife habitat.  In the past, critics of proposals to log in State Forests were told that State Forests (where limited logging is allowed) were for multiple uses, including logging.  If those who opposed logging in State Forests wanted to avoid logging, they were advised to go to State Parks.

This bill changes all that.  If this bill passes, there will be no place on state owned land where someone could go and avoid logging.  The bill changes the purpose of Parks from “preserving” to “maintaining” the Parks’ scenic, aesthetic, scientific, cultural, archaeological or historical values or natural wonders, or providing public recreation.

Critics also contend that protestations about enhancing forest health are a smokescreen; this is all about the money.  To some extent this has to be true.  If payments on the loan are due every year, the Department of Natural Resources will have to log every year no matter what any considerations of forest health might require.

Opponents also say that arguments about “forest health” are really judgements about what kind of forest West Virginia wants.  The overwhelming majority of the forest land in West Virginia is in private hands.  It is managed for timber on a long rotation basis.  The land is timbered and then sits there until it has some value again.  Then some combination of the market and landowner interest results in it being timbered.  To many people, this produces what they consider a healthy forest.  It is also a forest that favors certain species of wildlife.  It is a forest that produces more lumber but never results in a mature forest.

If we allow State Parks to grow into mature forests, we will have a healthy forest that favors different species of wildlife.   If we want to ever have anything other than the kind of forest managed to produce timber, we need to keep timbering out of State Parks.

A coalition of groups has formed to oppose this bill.  Its members include the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Christians for the Mountains, Eight Rivers Council, Friends of Blackwater, Friends of the Cheat, Kanawha Forest Coalition, Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance, WV Chapter of the Sierra Club, WV Environmental Council, WV Rivers Coalition, WV Wilderness Coalition, WV Scenic Trails Association, and West Virginians for Public Lands.