Energy, Environment, Government, State Government, West Virginia Legislature

Senate bill opens path for state to make money through forest-management wildfire prevention

MORGANTOWN — The state Senate held a long-but-warm-spirited debate on Wednesday over an amendment to a bill designed to protect state-owned forests from wildfires, and bring in cash in the process.

Senators also unanimously passed a bill to help pave the way for the state’s hydrogen industry.

SB 688 is the forest bill. It would allow the Division of Forestry and the Division of Natural Resources to contract for the management of state-owned or state-leased forests, natural and scenic areas, wildlife management areas, and other lands under their jurisdiction for the limited purposes of protecting, preserving, and maintaining the lands from wildfires.

Senators explained during the debate that these would be highest-bid contracts (whoever proposes to pay the state the most for the privilege of doing the job) to companies with experience in managing forested and mountainous lands, to remove underbrush that would serve as a source for wildfires.

The underbrush would be a source for the biomass industry that would use the material to generate energy, and senators see the jobs and economic development potential for the state in encouraging the industry.

Delegate David Stover, R-Wyoming, offered the amendment to exclude state parks and rail-trail lands from the areas open to contracting. He said he’d like to wait a year or two to see if the management program works, and removing state parks would only remove about 10% of the total acreage available for contracting.

Stover noted that the contractors would be removing invasive species overwhelming areas of the forests — chiefly autumn olive and kudzu.

Finance chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, opposed the amendment, saying the Commerce secretary told his committee that the bill will aid the management of all the forest areas, including the parks, because parks and wildlife management areas lack the resources for proper management.

Also, he said, the contracts will be subject to scrutiny to ensure the best companies are hired.

There was some concern that the bill might open the parks to commercial timbering but Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, was among those who said it wouldn’t.

It passed 31-3 and goes to the House. Two Democrats and Stover voted against it.

SB 683 removes hydrogen from the list of alternative fuels subject to the motor fuel excise tax.

Tarr said hydrogen has a spectrum of uses beyond motor fuel. “The change in code will make sure that West Virginia is competitive in this promising and budding industry.”

A fiscal note on the bill shows it will not affect the Road Fund because there are no hydrogen-fueled vehicles.

Tarr said the state is uniquely positioned, because of its abundant coal and natural gas resources, to be a major hydrogen producer.

The vote was 34-0 and it goes to the House.


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