Skip to main content

Making a Mark

Richard (Dick) and Floyd Bowlby standing in forest

The nearly 12 million acres of green, lush forests in West Virginia provide more than a scenic backdrop for tourism magazines and wedding photos – more than $4 billion in economic impact from timber alone, as a matter of fact.

Richard (Dick) and Floyd Bowlby want to figure out how to turn water into wine, or in the case of West Virginia’s timberland, turn poor-quality hardwoods and waste products left behind after logging into cash and increase the timber industry’s economic impact.

“We have a tremendous resource out here, and if you can increase the value of it, it will impact everyone in the state,” Dick Bowlby said.

So in 2011, the Bowlbys invested more than a half million dollars, matched by the West Virginia Research Trust Fund made available by the West Virginia Legislature, to develop the Hardwood Research Trust in the WVU Davis College School of Natural Resources. At just over $1 million, the funds, invested through the WVU Foundation and State, produce about $40,000 annually for hardwood research. And now the Bowlbys are hopeful that other timber industry leaders will make additional investments in hardwood research through the trust.

While forestry has always been a part of West Virginia’s natural resource economy, the downturn in the economy in 2008 and 2009 hit the wood manufacturing industry hard. The Hardwood Research Trust (HRT) is aimed at finding innovative ways to improve the value of poor-quality Appalachian hardwoods and give industry a place to bring problems and together — with WVU researchers — develop solutions.

And the HRT also wants to find ways to keep the industry chugging along, even in economic downturns. That’s where the Bowlbys see opportunity in hardwood waste and low-quality timber.

Due to species mix and market demand, West Virginia has a large volume of timber that has little or no value. Hardwood forest products are continuing to lose market share to plastic in housing products, such as molding and flooring, and industrial products, such as pallets.

“We’re losing markets if you look around,” Dick Bowlby said, pointing to more and more plastic products, such as architectural wood work and flooring in the fast food industry, made to look like wood.

At the same time, West Virginia is growing more timber every year. In 1949 timber stocks were 18 billion board feet. Today timber stocks are more than 76 billion board feet. And timber is West Virginia’s only renewable natural resource.

Students measuring tree

“There’s a lot of timber just left in the woods,” said Floyd Bowlby. “Low-grade timber won’t pay for its way out of the woods. It’s a tremendous resource we’re leaving out there. Loggers, sawmills and especially us as land owners will all benefit if we find other markets for this waste.”

Dick and Floyd know the industry like the backs of their hands. Dick graduated from WVU as a forester in 1950. Floyd graduated from WVU with a forestry degree and a master’s in business administration in 1982 but has worked with his father in the industry for most of his career.

Dick helped to build Burke, Parsons & Bowlby, which went public in 1970, selling cribbing blocks, roof caps, wedges and other treated timber, mostly for the mining industry. The company experienced tremendous growth, diversifying into railroad ties and timbers, fence post and wood highway materials. They built six plants in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, as well as one in Chile. Stella-Jones, a Canadian and European company that produces railroad ties and timbers and utility poles, acquired the company in 2008.

Dick saw firsthand the importance of research on the timber industry when, about 20 years ago, many railroads were turning to concrete to replace wood railroad ties in high-decay areas. Research conducted at Mississippi State to treat the ties with borate increased the life of wooden crossties by nearly 50 percent, bringing the industry back to purchasing hardwood crossties.

“We would really be hurting without the crosstie business in West Virginia,” said Dick Bowlby, whose family owns more than 6,000 acres and leases another 1,000 acres of timberland in the state. West Virginia sells about 1 million crossties annually.

But historically, in West Virginia, the wood manufacturing industry has never been good at getting together to find new markets or to work together to find ways to improve the economic outlook for timber, the two contend.

“The fragmentation of our forest products industry has led to very little research and breakthroughs of high-value hardwood timber products in the past,” Floyd Bowlby said. “We need West Virginia University to help lead the way in establishing ways to improve the value of Appalachian hardwood timber.”

The HRT began its research in 2013 and has examined the market potential and acceptance of low-value, low quality, Appalachian hardwoods in the manufacturing of cross-laminated timbers (CLT) in the Appalachian region. Dave DeVallance, a WVU associate professor of wood science and technology, is leading the CLT research team.

“CLTs have the potential to completely change residential and commercial building practices and can be made using low-grade Appalachian hardwoods. The HRT has allowed us to develop and build the newest and largest CLT press in the eastern United States and will put WVU at the forefront of CLT research and development,” said Shawn Grushecky.

The HRT is administered by Grushecky, a WVU School of Natural Resources research associate and assistant director of the Appalachian Hardwood Center. The Center actively manages the HRT by developing partnerships between WVU researchers and industry partners.

“The HRT provides a wonderful opportunity to quickly develop research collaborations between natural resource-based businesses and WVU researchers,” Grushecky said. “Many times, it becomes difficult for WVU researchers to completely understand what is needed in the industrial sector. The HRT forces significant interaction between them and those producing the wood products used by consumers.”

The HRT also allows funding risk to be reduced. Projects supported by the HRT might not make it through traditional government channels because of their risk but can be supported by the HRT. The HRT represents a tremendous opportunity in this regard, Grushecky said.

In 2014, the HRT partnered with Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Incorporated (AHMI) to further each group’s research agenda. The funding for the project is being used to collect data on already installed woodlots to determine the impact of fertilizers on those stocks. AHMI put in about $10,000 on the project, which was matched by the trust.

“My project focuses on regeneration potential of seedlings following harvesting,” said Jamie Schuler, an assistant professor in silviculture. “In many cases, low-value species outcompete seedlings of desirable species. The intent of this project is to assess whether easily applied treatments — fertilization and weed control — to individual seedlings can improve their probabilities of long-term growth and survival.”

Although the HRT is a relatively new program, it has tremendous potential to improve the quality and value of Appalachian hardwoods in the state, Schuler said. West Virginia is a major contributor to the forest products industry. Funding from the HRT is used to address questions related to using this resource in a sustainable and efficient manner, he added.

“While West Virginia’s forests are still producing more wood than is removed, some less-desirable species are becoming more common. The state’s forest-wide census data show that non-oaks are accounting for greater proportions of the total volume growth and are more common in the smaller diameter classes, which indicates a possible shift in species composition as oaks are harvested,” he said.

A strength of this program is the forest industry collaboration, Schuler said. Undergraduate and graduate students working on these projects understand and appreciate the fact that these research activities are providing solutions that forest landowners and wood processing companies can use to sustainably manage our forest resources and maximize the benefits obtained from them.

“Without support from the HRT, funding for these applied research projects would be difficult to obtain,” Schuler added. “Furthermore, the HRT funds have been used to leverage existing funding and garner additional matching funds from other forest industry-focused associations.”

Students taking a water sample

Just this year, Noble Energy invested $25,000 to match $25,000 from the HRT to help with a research project to develop an understanding of traditional filter sock medium specifications and to compare the effectiveness of woods-run material versus traditionally composted wood chips in controlling sediment transport. They also want to examine if industries would be willing to use woods-run material in filter socks, especially around deep shale drilling operations.

“These projects and others will continue generating research opportunities for WVU, as well as leading to economic opportunities for the state of West Virginia,” Floyd Bowlby said.