Putting a well-educated workforce on the payroll to guide the labor in the woodlands in harvesting trees is just as important, and possibly more so, than offering business firms tax incentives, Deputy Forester Greg Cook suggested late last month.

Cook responded to a question put to him at an earlier Forest Management Review Commission meeting by Sen. Karen Facemyer, R-Jackson, about the value of tax incentives offered in North Carolina, and why furniture makers are inclined to set up shop there, rather than in West Virginia.

While no such comparisons are possible, Cook pointed out a huge, multi-national firm, IKEA, opened a new factory in Danville, Va., after getting some $12 million in tax breaks.

However, Cook said the production of secondary wood products in recent years has become more sophisticated, requiring a well-educated workforce.

“Computer literacy and familiarity with architectural design and drafting software is required,” Cook said.

Likewise, technical “bridge” workers who can close the gap between the high-tech side of a firm and the employees on the lower-tech portion are needed, he said.

Forest product manufacturers in North Carolina insisted the “bridge” employees were most in demand, the deputy forester said.

Over the past 10 years, he told the commission, employment in West Virginia has fallen 30 percent, including a 3 percent decline since a year ago, Cook said.

“We’re still tailing off,” he said.

That translates into 11,552 direct jobs in this state, and 10,514 spin-off jobs, he said.

One factor that is hard to get a handle on is the amount of illegally sourced wood from Russia, Indonesia, Brazil and other countries, the forester said.

A federal law known as the Lacey Act is in force to combat this practice, and already has produced a hefty fine against Gibson Guitar in Nashville, he pointed out.

Raids there in 2009 and 2011 led to the confiscation of ebony, and ultimately a $350,000 fine, Cook said.

“Somebody is attempting to enforce that law,” he said. “At this point, there is no way to actually know the volume of wood that is being shipped and maybe illegally sourced from Russia and Indonesia. We do have data showing exports from Russia and Indonesia into West Virginia.”

On another matter, Cook said the Division of Forestry put in more than 600 additional hours in the wake of a blizzard that pounded the state, courtesy of Superstorm Sandy.

Crews armed with power saws were busy clearing trees across a wide swath of the state.

“We spent a lot of time out there,” Cook said. “They said it was cold, wet and hard work.”

Almost two months into the forest fire season, Cook said the state has witnessed an outbreak of 231 fires, burning more than 7,700 acres.

— E-mail:mannix@register-herald.com

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