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.
One of the oldest and largest industries in West Virginia is the timber and wood products industry. West Virginia is rich in this renewable natural resource, but the housing downturn that began 10 years ago hit the industry hard.
“We are the third most forested state in the United States. We have 7 million more forested acres in West Virginia than we did 100 years ago. There are 350,000 forest landowners in West Virginia,” said Frank Stewart, Executive Director of the West Virginia Forestry Association – a non-profit that represents those in the forestry and wood products industry.
“There are 30,000 jobs that we provide by our industry and we have over $3 billion in income gross a year in the state. We are a naturally regenerating, biodegradable industry.”
And West Virginia’s 12 million acres of forests are among the most biologically diverse in the world.
Fernow Experimental Forest
To see how different species of trees regenerate and thrive, we visited the Fernow Experimental Forest in Tucker County, where, for nearly 70 years foresters have been studying how different management and cutting practices affect the regeneration and growth of trees – from seedlings to saplings to healthy, mature specimens.
“True seedlings are that first plant that forms from the seed – that can be a year old, they can be five years old,” said Melissa Thomas Van Gundy, a research forester with the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station. “Foresters use the term “sapling” when a tree finally gets out of that little stage, reaches for some sunlight, gets up to be an inch in diameter – taller than five feet, and starting to look like a tree.
“Saplings people think are young, but because sugar maples have such a slow growth habit, they’re shade-tolerant, this could be an 80-year-old tree – just a couple inches wide. Its strategy to compete with other species is to hang out in the understory and grow at slow levels with little light until it gets its chance.”
Van Gundy says the sapling’s chance will come when the mature black cherry beside it – which doesn’t live as long and has a different strategy.
“It’s a shade-intolerant species – so when it was a seedling, it shot up for the light as fast as it could, trying to out-complete this sugar maple, and in the long run, they’re both going to win,” she said.
Our forests help clean the air and water, provide habitat for wildlife, a place to hunt, fish, hike, bike, camp, or just get-away into the woods and enjoy its beauty. Timber and forest products also have a huge economic footprint across West Virginia, according to Joe McNeel, Professor of Forestry and former head of the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources at West Virginia University.
“If you go into any county in West Virginia, there is a forest products company, or a wood yard, or somebody manufacturing something out of wood that they’re making their livelihood from,” he said. “And so, 55 counties, we’ve got companies all over the state in every one of those counties.”
“But Elkins and the surrounding counties are what I would say are the center of the hardwood industry in the state – both in terms of volume and in terms of quality,” said Mark Haddix, wood specialist for Farm Credit of the Virginias.
“Elkins is the headquarters of the Hardwood Alliance Zone – nine mountain counties that have more than 200 manufacturing, processing and wood-product-related operations.”
Changing with the Times
At a recent Hardwood Alliance Zone meeting, Haddix pointed out how wood species go in and out of fashion – how oak, for example, wasn’t valued back in the 1950s and 60s.
“They would leave oaks in the woods – they had no value. Along came the 80s and we created value out of oak,” he said. “We sold homes because they had oak trim, oak cabinets. That trend ran until about 2004 or 2005. At that point in time, everyone was moving to the maples. And so at the end of the day, even with great forest management, it’s consumer preference.”
But wages in the timber industry – whether it’s logging or manufacturing – typically are not high, though thousands of families across the state who own woodlands supplement their income by selling timber from time to time – to send a child to college, or buy a new vehicle. And the timber business is notoriously cyclical, with dramatic peaks and troughs, like the housing crisis, that started in 2007 and 2008.
But, says, Joe McNeel, it’s still a fairly robust economic driver in the state.
“When things were tough, amazingly the forest products industry were able to find basically products that they could market to specific groups of people,” he said. “From 2007 – 2008 to right now we’ve seen a shift in what companies produce because of the markets they found during those tough times. They’re mostly industrial-type products: rail ties, wood mats, pallets, industrial bracing – material like that – have taken a larger portion of the manufacturing sector.”
So what brought it back?
“We’ve had some improvement in housing, but not robust. It’s been a steady, small climb. That’s been good. It’s healthy, sustainable, that’s OK,” Mark Haddix said. “The biggest factor has been the worldwide desire for American hardwoods. They like our hardwoods. We have some economies worldwide who for the first time are gaining a middle class. They’re westernizing just like a lot of other countries have done in the past. They desire the same things that we have.”
Haddix went on to say that in the past, the U.S. exported lumber for production for a product that was re-imported for our markets.
“Now our customer base, our sawmills, are exporting lumber for domestic markets elsewhere -- 2016 was a record export year for hardwood lumber across the nation,” he said.
More than $10 billion dollars worth. And West Virginia is aiming to grow its share of that market, and other jobs within the industry.
More to Come
In coming segments of this series, we’ll be looking at the past, present and future of the industry – from forestry practices, to logging, to sawmills, to manufacturing facilities. But all through the ups and downs of the wood business, families tend to stay involved – generation after generation. For more than a hundred years – in Pocahontas and Randolph counties, Jim Wilson’s family has been in the lumber business.
“I’m the fifth generation and maybe with one connection I’m the seventh generation, and it’s a saying that if you want to make sure that the offspring continue in the lumber business, that you take some sawdust to the hospital and put it in their hair just after they’re born, and they never get out of the wood business,” he said. “So I suppose that happened to me.”
Jim has kept that tradition alive with his own son
“I definitely took some down and he’s joined, so he’s the sixth generation that we know for sure,” Wilson said.
This series is made possible with support from the Myles Family Foundation.