Logging in W.Va.: Finding A Balance Between Preservation and Profits

Jul 11, 2017

Halfway between Mill Creek and Helvetia, West Virginia, four miles or so off the main road, Scotty Cook, the owner of a small-scale logging operation in Elkins, trudges along a muddy, deep gullied logging road. 

Cook has been working in the industry for about 20 years and got started because of his family.

"My dad and them, they [were] in it all their lives," he said. "Tradition I suppose."

Logging in West Virginia

Most of the state’s trees are harvested by small-scale logging operations like Cook's.

Scotty Cook
Credit Jean Snedegar

He is logging for Northwest Hardwoods, a company based in Washington state which has four sawmills in West Virginia – two of them in Randolph County.  The land is owned by Coastal Timberlands, which owns property in 11 states.  

He and his crew of about 7 are logging 100 acres of trees, working on the job for months at a time.

Cook watches as in the distance a chainsaw operator begins cutting an 80-foot tree. It falls to the ground and then he begins to explain what happens next in the logging process.

"He’s cutting all the limbs off of it, up to where he’ll cut the whole tree top out of it," Cook said. "He’s getting it ready for a skidder to come back and hook to it, to take it to the landing to get cut up into log lengths to go to the mill.

A large bulldozer-like machine called a skidder – operated by Cook’s nephew – backs up toward the downed tree. 

"He’ll turn around and back right up to it. He’ll hook up a chain-choker around to it, and pull it in with his wench," he said.

A skidder drags a freshly harvested tree down the mountain side.
Credit Jean Snedegar

Cook helps his nephew hook up the huge log to the skidder. While the chainsaw operator continues to cut down trees and remove their branches, the skidder goes back and forth, up and down the mountain, hauling the long, uncut logs to the landing. 

Cook said on this job, his crew has mostly been logging poplar, beech, birch and hard sugar maples, maybe a few oaks here and there, but very few.

He followed the skidder down the mountain, through the deep mud and back onto the logging road.

The Viability of the Industry

Cook said the industry-- a muddy one-- could pay a lot more, especially when you calculate the cost of taxes and fuel. He is no longer sure it's a good industry for young people in West Virginia to get into.

"All your timber, it’s being cut out," he said. "You take a lot of people – they’re doing all kind of clear cuts. I suppose they just want the money and need the money so they just cut it."

Editor's Note: This story is part of an occasional series from independent producer Jean Snedegar about the timber and forest products industry here in the Mountain State -- from seedlings to final products.

"I’ll never see a lot of places cut again," he added. "We’re just select-cutting. We don’t clear cut."  

In a clear cut, most or all of the trees are cut down. In a select cut, foresters decide which trees to take and which to leave behind for a future harvest.

"In a couple years a man could come back and work again – take some more timber out," Cook said. "If you take everything now, you ain’t gonna have nothin’."

Marking the Trees

Cook points to blue spray paint on certain trees in the area where his crew is working.

"Them’s the only trees we’re allowed to cut," he said.

Cook explained Coastal Timberlands has its own foresters who, once or twice a week, walk through the forest and mark the trees and their stumps that are allowed to be forested.

"And if they find stumps that don’t have any paint, they’ll stop you right there," Cook said.

"At times there may be a big tree behind and a small one in front, and you may have to cut it out of the way for safety," Cook said. "We always have to look at the safety first, because we don’t want anybody hurt or killed, [but] if you cut it out of the way, they say 'just cut it and leave it on the ground.'"

A stationary log loader stacks cut trees according to lengths, to prepare them for loading on a logging truck.
Credit Jean Snedegar

The Landing

Down the mountain on a big level area called a log landing, Cook's father, Gene Cook, operates a huge machine called a stationary log loader. 

Gene Cook has been working in the logging industry for 60 years, back when horses were used instead of massive machines. Still, Gene said the machines make the work easier and at 85 allow him to continue working full time.

"I can do the same now as I could 20 years ago," he said.

Gene measures and then cuts the logs into lengths suitable for the sawmill. 

In the final operation, a man sitting on top of the logging truck -- using a giant mechanical arm – picks up each log that Gene has put down and places it very neatly on the logging truck. 

Once the truck is full, he will head down the mountain to the Northwest Hardwoods sawmill in Mill Creek.