From a bridge across the Monkey River, towering stacks of pine logs blot out the view of the Chesapeake Corp., a Virginia-based paper manufacturer.
Almost four city blocks along, a block wide and nearly three stories high, the piles are little more than a one-week supply of raw material for the paper mill with its enormous appetite for logs, wood chips and beat-up boxes.
On the northern edge of pine trees and paper and pulp mills that stretch across the southereastern United States, Chesapeake stands with a handful of other paper manufacturers in Virginia's coastal plains, close to both raw materials and major markets.
In West Point, Va., where the paper mill dominates the economy, and in the paper industry in general, recession still seems far away.
"I haven't seen any signs of the recession they're predicting," said Chesapeake President Lawrence H. Camp, echoing what industry spokesmen say about the industry nationally. "All our sales managers and mill managers are very bullish. I hope they're right."
If they are, paper manufacturing may be one of the brighter spots in the overall manufacturing outlook for Virginia, where employment in the past year is believed to have grown more slowly than it did nationally.
"In the past, we've thought of Virginia's economy as outperforming the nation's," said Mark Kilduff, director of research for the state's industrial development division. In contrast, "on many measures of economic well-being (in 1979), Virginia is going to come out probably poorer than the U.S. average," he said.
Part of the reason is the continuing move offshore of the apparel industry, chasing cheap labor. Still another factor has been the lack of growth in the federal government, another major employer.
"I see no condition on the horizon that makes me think we're going to see something substantially different or better than we did in 1979," Kilduff said.
Although in some respects the outlook for paper manufacturers such as Chesapeake is relatively bright, recession, pollution control costs and increasingly tight supplies of raw materials when another paper mill opens 45 miles down the road from Chesapeake, are concerns for the paper company.
Overriding all those concerns, dominating marginal brooding about what generally looks like a good year ahead, are concerns about energy costs.
Five gallons of fuel go into the production of every cord of wood even before it is loaded on a truck or a barge for transportation to the mill. At the mill hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil and gigantic piles of coal tranform raw materials into pulp for paperboard, unbleached paper for grocery bags and other packaging and bleached hardwood pulp.
In 1977, Chesapeake used approximately 1.1 million barrels of oil. By next year the company expects to have cut that consumptions by more than half to 460,000 gallons. Even so, "we pay as much or more for the oil we now use," said Thomas G. Harris, vice president for woodlands.
Reduction in consumption has been brought about by the conversion of a large power boiler from oil to coal at government request and, in part, by turning wastes produced in the milling process back into power.
With all that, energy is still a major cost. "Energy is our No. 1 concern," Camp said.
Pollution control costs are another concern. The $20.8 million spent so far to bring the mill into compliance with state and federal standards has been largely successful so far, according to company officials. Plumes of smoke rising above the mill are snowy white against a lead gray winter sky and the characteristic sulfurous paper mill smell is faint and detectable only in the immediate area around the mill.
What worries company officials, they said, is concern that they may eventually be faced with unattainable standards and the cost of the controls may be detrimental. "Up to a point, you're more efficient because you're saving things," said Garland T. Edmonds, vice president for operations. "After awhile you're saving what you don't need."
Still another concern is raw material supplies. Chesapeake buys logs harvested in the immediate area, Maryland and North Carolina, and buys wood chips from sawmills. For the past two winters severe cold has hampered supply, freezing loaded barges downriver from the mill and freezing chips into sodden clumps inside trucks.
Although the supply of pine and hardwood statewide exceeds demand, the last U.S. Department of Agriculture forest survey found that pine was being overcut in the coastal plain area of Virginia, the nearest and cheapest supply. Since that survey, although conditions are believed to have improved, pine in the coastal plains is probably still overcut by 4 to 5 percent, said Elvin Frame, supervisor of forest products for the state.
Early in 1980, the Bear Island Paper Co. owned by The Washington Post Co. and Dow Jones Inc. is expected to open a new paper mill in the area that will compete with Chesapeake and other users for the already tight supply of local pine. "It's going to be pretty competitive for the material within the radius of any of those mills," Frame said.
"At this point, we don't feel there is a suuficient supply in the area at this time for what we have and the new one coming on. Probably the other mills are going to find it difficult to expand," he said.
However, the local supply is not the only source of raw materials. In addition, both the state and the paper companies have invested in reforestation that will bring supply into better balance eventually.
"I think the supply is going to be adequate," Harris said. "I don't think there's going to be a big surplus of pine, but it will be adequate because we've planned for it," he said. The company owns about 352,000 acres of timberlands and has encourage private landowners to reforest, he said.
The year just ended was a good year for Chesapeake and for the paper industry in general. Chesapeake's sales for the first three quarters were $177 million, an increase of $37 million -- or 26 percent -- over 1978. Currently sales are running at an annual rate of about $235 million.
Most of those sales -- about 53 per cent -- are mill products, including about 480,000 tons annually of primary paper products. The company also manufactures and sells corrugated containers, lumber and plywood, pine bark mulch and manufactured housing through its recently acquired subsidiary, Homecraft Corp.
"I think the coming year is going to be a good year," Camp said. "1979 was the largest year we've had, so I don't know if 1980 is going to be as good as 1979," he said. "If there's a serious recession, it's bound to have an effect, but I don't see any signs of a recession at all."