2017-11-29 / Featured / Observer Business

Beyond the cul-de-sacs, Chesterfield’s logging industry keeps trucking


Logging trucks remove trees from an 80-acre tract in Chester. Unbeknownst to many, the logging industry in Chesterfield is thriving. 
JAMES HASKINS Logging trucks remove trees from an 80-acre tract in Chester. Unbeknownst to many, the logging industry in Chesterfield is thriving. JAMES HASKINS With rugged claws on its snout like those of a gigantic beetle, a “skidder” rumbles loudly as it tows cut trees on an 80-acre tract of forest just off Riverway Road in southwestern Chesterfield County.

The skidder totes the lumber to another machine with a long, mechanical arm called a loader, which bundles up logs so they can be placed on one of several tractor-trailer rigs. The destinations are pulp mills in Hopewell and West Point owned by WestRock, a paper and packaging company.

“It can take three months to clear-cut a tract like this,” says Chris Barton, whose father, Clay Barton, owns Green Bay, Virginia-based Barton Logging Inc., which is handling the job. The site they’re logging is just beyond Beach and Riverway roads, about a half mile from Crump’s Store. Once cleared, the 80 acres will be replanted with seedlings and ready for thinning in 17 years, and cutting about 10 years after that. To many, Chesterfield brings to mind endless rows of cul-de-sac housing, schools and strip malls. But large swaths of the southern and western parts of the county are forested thickets of hardwood and pine, representing a lucrative, if sometimes hidden, industry.

JAMES HASKINS JAMES HASKINS “We’re the third largest industry in the state,” says Paul R. Howe, executive director of the Virginia Forestry Association. “We’re the quiet giant. Unless you live in a rural area, you don’t notice us,” he says. According to Virginia Tech, the commonwealth’s 15 million acres of forests support a $23 billion industry.

In Chesterfield, the timber industry has been somewhat overshadowed of late by a proposed $2 billion, Chinese-owned pulp mill proposed in the eastern part of the county.

The Tranlin Inc. project is billed as being especially safe to the environment because it would use leftover farm waste such as corn stalks instead of trees to make paper. Recent setbacks, however, have darkened the mill’s prospects.

Several loggers who regularly work Chesterfield, along with Howe, say they don’t know much about Tranlin or its treeless processes.

They’ve been busy doing things the traditional way. From 2004 to 2015, Chesterfield loggers sold an average of 4,692,210 cubic feet of lumber, ranking No. 39 out of the state’s 126 counties, according to data compiled by the Virginia Department of Forestry.

That’s nowhere close to logging champ Brunswick County, which sold nearly 300 million cubic feet during the same period. Chesterfield is only slightly behind neighboring and more rural Powhatan County with its 4,693,750 cubic feet.

Typically, loggers come from outside of Chesterfield. One company is Amelia-based Weaver Logging, which operates throughout central and southern Virginia. “There’s still a lot of wood in Chesterfield,” says Richard Spittle, manager of the business.

Another firm, GrayCo, based in Wakefield, owns about 6,000 acres of Chesterfield woodlands and harvests trees here regularly, says owner Garland Gray. In early November, his company was working a tract of bottomland near the Appomattox River and Lake Chesdin not far from the Amelia line. Log trucks and others filled with chopped-up mulch lined the gravel road to the site. I n forestry terms, Chesterfield is a transition zone between the

Coastal Plain and the Piedmont, offering profitable types of trees from both regions.

The most profitable trees are hardwoods red oak and white oak, and softwood loblolly pines, according to Richard D. Reuse, state forester for Chesterfield County. The oaks are valuable upland woods, while the loblolly pines, typically used for pulp, are part of a vast softwood forest that stretches along the southern coast from New Jersey to Texas.

The biggest customer for the county’s timber is WestRock, a global lumber giant based in suburban Atlanta. The company was formed in 2015, the result of a $16 billion merger between Norcross, Georgia-based RockTenn Co. and Richmond-based MeadWestvaco.

Primarily hardwood goes to a company mill in West Point, which makes paperboard for boxes and shopping bags, among other products. Pine tends to go to a WestRock pulp mill in Hopewell.

Otherwise, “products can go anywhere” and much of that depends on trends in the global timber market, Spittle says. Sawmills dot the state. Amelia has a plant that makes pallets. Chicken farmers use a pulp-related product in elongated metal coops to handle droppings. Thanks to the digital economy, however, demand for paper, especially newsprint, has declined.

Globally, Virginia exports wood pellets to England and other European countries, which use them as biomass fuel for heat or to generate electricity. Dominion Energy is another big customer.

China, which is chronically short of trees, buys hardwood from Virginia, Howe says. That may seem ironic since Chinese-based Tranlin wants to build a treeless paper mill here. Spittle says he’s not familiar with Tranlin but notes that China has an appetite for imported hardwood. In 2014, China imported $619 million worth of agricultural goods, led by timber through Virginia ports, according to state figures.

One promising and growing market is for “fluff” pulp that is used in adult diapers. A pulp mill in Franklin specializes in the material and has expanded because of America’s aging population. “They bring in diapers by the truckload to senior care centers,” Spittle says.

Clear-cutting practices used extensively by Virginia loggers are the most cost-effective harvesting techniques. But they have critics, especially environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.

They claim that clear-cutting destroys animal and plant habitats, pollutes streams and changes critically important water temperatures and can cause wind erosion. In mountainous areas, the practices can lead to devastating floods, environmental groups claim. In tropical areas in Asia and South America, environmentalists say, unregulated logging destroys jungles on a vast scale.

Another problem is that clear-cut tracts can seem aesthetically unappealing to homeowners who live nearby. “It is visually impactful for the first year after harvesting, and then it starts to get green,” says Howe. Most logged areas are replanted with seedlings, but it can take months before new growth comes in.

The clear-cutting itself isn’t a major issue for environmental groups in Virginia. Claudine McElwain, program communications manager at the Charlottesville based Southern Environmental Law Center, says that to her knowledge her group hasn’t legally challenged clear-cutting in the state.

In Virginia, the Department of Forestry takes the position that clear-cutting is actually better for the environment than what’s known as select cutting, wherein prize trees are harvested but lesser trees are spared. The state’s best-selling trees such as loblolly pines and some hardwoods actually grow better if they have access to full sunlight, according to the Department of Forestry’s website.

To promote sustainability, the department provides experts to landowners and loggers who must inform the Department of Forestry if they intend to harvest logs. The experts help loggers draw up plans to minimize runoff into streams.

The state also grows millions of seedlings at two state facilities each year and sells them to logging firms, says state forester Reuse. The nurseries produce about 40 species of seedlings, but “loblolly pine is easily the No. 1 seedling we sell,” he notes. Plantings usually occur in February and March and the fall. Loblolly pines usually are ready for cutting in about 25 years.

The state program is funded by a special tax loggers pay and through sales revenue from the seedlings. If the state sells out of seedlings, timber firms buy them commercially. Spittle of Weaver Logging says that a new “third generation” loblolly seedling can grow trees to harvestable size more quickly – in 20 years.

To be sure, Chesterfield has limitations in timber operations. The northern half of the county was largely cleared out for development years ago. In the forested areas, narrow, winding country roads make it hard for logging trucks to navigate, says Chris Dunn, office manager for GrayCo.

Long-term, the county has had plans for years to build a superhighway that would extend the Powhite Parkway across Hull Street Road and then eastward through some of the county’s richest forested areas. Related development could change local logging by permanently removing trees and limiting access to choice tracts.

But for now, the logging industry is thriving in the county – and should remain so for the foreseeable future. ¦

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