Forester's Memo Draws Criticism

Official Uses Grant to Promote Private Property Rights

From an article in the Charleston Daily Mail on June 12, 1998

By Stephen Singer

A top state forester, using a federal grant to establish a group promoting private property rights, has blasted environmentalists who oppose timber cutting in the Blackwater Canyon.

Ed Murriner, assistant state forester in the Division of Forestry and unpaid secretary of the year-old Woodland Owner’s Association of West Virginia, distributed a memo Wednesday to 650 prospective recruits to the private group. The mailing list was gleaned from applicants to the state forest management program, he said Thursday.

"The misinformed environmental movement is renewing efforts to severely restrict or eliminate timber management on public lands, abusing such issues as wetlands and endangered species to further their cause," Murriner wrote.

An environmentalist fired back, saying the memo is taxpayer-financed propaganda. "It’s outrageous," said Vivian Stockman, a lobbyist for the Highlands Conservancy, a statewide environmental group. Stockman also contended Murriner's dual responsibilities as state official and secretary of the Woodland Owners Association are a conflict of interest.

Cindy Rank, an activist in the Highlands Conservancy, also criticized Murriner’s comments.

"I find it disappointing, if not anything stronger, that they are using federal grants to promote this form of forestry," she said. "It divides people further."

Bill Maxey, the state’s director of forestry, said he is a charter member of the Woodland Owner's Association. The $34,000 grant was awarded by the U.S. Forest Service in 1995 to help the state agency educate woodland owners and promote sustainable forest use, Maxey said. Dan Kincaid, an urban forester at the U.S. Forest Service in Morgantown, said membership is available to woodland owners of 1 acre or more. The organization targets small property owners rather than corporate or industrial owners of timberland, he said.

Mark Burke, president of the Sissonville-based group, said a priority of the organization is to promote the rights of private property owners.

"We’re interested in private landowner rights. It’s one of our main issues," said Burke, a Morgantown resident who is a consultant to foresters.

In the memo, Murriner criticized environmentalists for trying to block timber cutting in the Blackwater Canyon in Tucker County. A 3,000-acre tract adjacent to Blackwater River State Park was sold last year by a subsidiary of Allegheny Power System Inc. to Canyon Lands Inc.

John Crites, owner of Allegheny Wood Products Co., is timbering a section of canyon property that was resold.

The Highlands Conservancy is among several environmental groups that opposes timber cutting in the canyon. Environmentalists convinced the state Supreme Court in April to determine whether the Public Service Commission should have intervened in the Blackwater Canyon land sale.

Murriner said in Thursday that he opposes what he called pressure applied to owners of private property.

"It’s a landowner’s right to do what he wants with that property," Murriner said. "If he wants to sell it to the state, he should be allowed, but he shouldn't be forced to sell it."

Maxey said the group does not favor one side over another in environmental disputes. Groups have attacked state policy "from an emotional standpoint," he said. "Ours is from a scientific standpoint."

Forestry officials who belong to the group will comply with state law that bars state employees from lobbying the Legislature, Maxey said. The group has been soliciting members for six months and has about 230 members, Burke said. _