Twenty-two years ago, the 50-acre hilltop pasture in Essex County south of the Rappahannock River sold for about $5,000. The new owner planted loblolly pines and let the land take care of itself. Last month, the first harvest began on that hilltop, a microcosm of Virginia's $2.5 billion forest products world.

Even after more than two decades, most of the timber is not ready to be cut and the land has passed to the owner's widow. To encourage faster growth in the larger trees, which will probably be cut in another 10 years or so as "saw timber" from which lumber will be made, the tract is being thinned.

Originally, the owner planted 800 trees to the acre, some of which failed to survive, while some other less-wanted species also sprang up. With the help of state foresters, individual trees in the dense growth were marked for cutting, leaving about 250 to 300 trees per acre to continue to mature.

Chesapeake Corp. of Virginia is buying the trees being cut as pulp wood for its pulp and paper mill at West Point, Va., about 50 miles away at the head of the York River. Chesapeake, one of the largest landowners in the state with sales of $283 million last year, is paying in the neighborhood of $10 a cord for the wood. (A cord is 128 cubic feet, or a stack 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet.) With a harvest from the thinning of about 15 cords per acre, the present owner will get about $7,500.

When the saw timber is cut in another decade, the hilltop probably will yield about 15,000 board feet per acre, estimates state district forester Roland B. Geddes. In today's deeply depressed market, such a harvest would bring about 10 cents a board foot, or $75,000.

The wait between initial investment and the real return will be more than 30 years for this tract of softwood timber. In the rougher, drier, less fertile land of the mountains along Virginia's western border, the rotation time for hardwoods is far longer, in some cases stretching to a full century. The essence of timber management is time.

Meanwhile, the Essex County hilltop is providing income for its owner, raw material for pulp and paper, and jobs in the forest, in transportation, and at the mill.

Every county in the state, and even some of the cities, have what the Virginia Division of Forestry regards as commercial timberland. More than 60 percent of the state's 26.1 million acres is forested, including 1.6 million acres in the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forests.

State officials estimate that about 68,000 persons are employed in the approximately 1,000 sawmills, planing mills, veneer plants, pole and piling plants, furniture plants, flooring mills, cooperage mills, pulp and paper mills and other forest products businesses scattered across Virginia. Thousands of others work part time cutting, splitting and selling firewood.

The forest, both privately and publicly owned, also directly supports a wide range of recreational activities that add to the state's economy. Whether someone is hiking, camping, hunting or just driving past the forest looking at the scenery, the presence of the forest and its wildlife encourage its use--and the spending of money.

George Washington National Forest officials estimate that there were more than 1.7 million visitor-days worth of recreational use of the forest in 1981. As with all national forests, one-fourth of its income from timber sales, recreational use fees, mineral leases and other income is turned over to the state for distribution to the counties in which the forests are located. The counties get a minimum of 75 cents an acre a year to use for roads and schools. The two forests' payments to Virginia this year will be just over $400,000.

But large as they are, the national forests are far less important in terms of timber production and jobs than are the privately owned timberlands, such as that hilltop in Essex County. For William H. Green of Tappahannock, who for years worked as a construction supervisor for a Washington area company, the availability of those pines is an opportunity to build a new business.

Green is one of a host of contract cutters used by Chesapeake, which, unlike many forest products companies, does not have its own logging crews in the woods even on its own land. He will get $26.50 for each cord of wood he and his employe cut using a leased "cutter" and a $34,000 "logger" that he owns. "It'll take about 10 weeks to take it all out," Green says.

Everywhere these days, cutting trees has become a highly capitalized business. Green uses a chain saw only to trim the felled trees. The cutter, a small tractor unit with treads, has a surrealistic device on the front with hydraulic clamps that grabs a standing tree and a set of shears that snips it off flush with the ground. In this case, the trees are only 6 or 8 inches in diameter, and the operator cuts one and then another, before he wheels the cutter and flips the 20-foot trees, tops wildly waving in the air, onto a nearby stack.

The logger, a three-wheeled machine with a single claw-like arm, can grab several tree-length logs at a time, drag them to a larger clearing and load them onto a waiting open trailer that can take about 8 cords at a shot. The trucker who moves the load to the mill is another independent operator.

On Route 17 heading southeast toward his office in Tappahannock, Geddes, who has been a forester for 33 years, points out the empty flat-bed trailer trucks also moving south. "They'll be loaded with lumber or treated posts and be going north again tonight about 11 o'clock," he says.

But the stream of trucks these days is smaller than usual. High interest rates have clobbered the home building industry and, with it, the demand for lumber. Similarly, the widespread recession has curtailed sales of paper containers ranging from bags to corrugated boxes. Even the demand for firewood is not soaring as it has been for several years, though that may be more a result of the easing of the energy crisis than because of the recession.

At the Ball Lumber Co. in Miller's Tavern, not far from Tappahannock, John Ball produces 8 million to 10 million board feet of lumber each year. He also sells chips to pulp mills and bark for mulch or boiler fuel. About half of the sawdust from his two sawmills is sold for bedding for horses and poultry, while the other half ends up in manufactured hardboard.

Ironically, it's the byproducts that are keeping him in business. "Looks like there's about as much demand for bark and sawdust as ever," Ball says. "We're having trouble getting rid of chips. Lumber is awful. Pallet lumber is awful slow, too. Except for treated lumber, we'd be at a standstill at the mill."

Ball, whose three sons separately oversee the company's logging, sawmill and office operations, has 45 employes, none of whom has been laid off. Like Cheasapeake Corp., Ball also uses contractors to cut the wood from the company's land and from that of other private landowners.

"It takes a long time to train people in our line of work," he notes. If we laid them off, for us, it would be hard to start back up. So we find all sorts of methods to keep them at work." Right now the principal method is running a 32-hour week at the mills instead of the usual 40.

At the Chesapeake pulp and paper mill at West Point, the method is accumulating stacks of huge rolls of kraft paper and liner board--the stuff out of which cardboard boxes are made--in inventories around the mill yard. Last year, the mill, which on a bright spring day was virtually odor free, turned out more than 500,000 tons of paper and pulp products, about 12 percent of which was exported from the deep-water docks alongside the mill.

All of Chesapeake's operations were profitable last year, except its plywood mill, which is still working one week on and one week off. No other employes among the 2,000 or so working in Virginia have been laid off. Chesapeake has corrugated container plants in Richmond and Roanoke, as well as in Baltimore and five other cities in the East.

"We are not into solid wood as heavily as some of the other companies," says Sharon Miller, director of forest management and research. "In linerboard we began to notice a drop only in the fourth quarter."

The company has set records for earnings in each of the last three years, notes William Sullivan, director of public and investor relations. But, he adds, "We don't expect 1982 to be a such good year."

The majority of the 364,000 acres Chesapeake owns is in Virginia, making it either the state's largest landowner or No. 2 behind Union Camp Corp., which has 214,000 acres in the state. (In 1973, Union Camp donated 49,000 acres of land in the Great Dismal Swamp to the Nature Conservancy, which conveyed it to the Department of Interior for a wildlife refuge.)

Union Camp operates a large pulp and paper mill and other operations in Franklin, Va., about 40 miles southwest of Norfolk not far from the North Carolina line. It also has a corrugated container plant and a grocery sack plant in Richmond and a lumber mill in Waverly. Altogether it employs 2,874 people in Virginia.

Among the other forest products companies with large acreage in the state or major paper or pulp mills are Westvaco, Continental Forest Industries, Weyerhauser Corp., Mead Corp. and Owens-Illnois Corp. The Washington Post Co. and Dow Jones & Co. are joint owners of a newsprint plant in Hanover County north of Richmond.

The mills in the eastern and central parts of the state rely virtually entirely on timber from private lands. To the west, timber from the national forests is important, too. In each case, transportation costs severely limit the area from which timber can be cut and still reach a mill at a reasonable price.

In the Tidewater area, loblolly pine predominates. Through the Piedmont plateau farther inland, that and other pine species persist, but the hardwoods--oak, hickory and yellow poplar--become prevalent. In the higher mountains, the hardwoods take over, with beech, maple and basswood added to the types also in the Piedmont.

Contrary to expectations, the hardwoods generally are less valuable than the softwoods, and wherever the terrain, fertility and rainfall allow, state foresters like Geddes urge private landowners to plant pine when an area is cut over. In fact, Geddes says, there is a state law that if 10 percent or more of a stand of trees being harvested is in one of several types of pine or in yellow poplar, the owner is required either to leave seed trees standing or to sign a formal agreement with the Division of Forestry to replant the acreage in an appropriate way--which usually means loblolly pines.

The state will provide pine seedlings from its nursery in New Kent for $14 a thousand and help an owner find a contract crew to plant them. Currently, planting runs between $32 and $38 a thousand, with about 800 planted to the acre during the December-to-April period. "When a planter is in shape, he or she can do about 2,000 a day," Geddes says. Chesapeake and several other major forest-products companies have plans under which they will give or subsidize purchase of seedlings for planting on land owned by private individuals.

"The biggest thing we are interested in is seeing that the land is reforested when it is harvested," Geddes explains. "We have provided 6.3 million for planting since Dec. 1, and there have probably been another 3 to 4 million planted on industrial forest land this year." (Industrial forests are those owned by forest-products companies.)

"Our goal is to talk to every landowner," he continues. "We have a heavy surplus of hardwood and a shortage of pine and a bigger shortage of pine staring us in the face. What nature will put on this land is hardwoods. You've got to fight nature to keep pine on this land."

Pine grows fast and produces more suitable saw timber, from which lumber can be made. An acre of pine will produce two to three times as much wood as a hardwood stand, Geddes estimates. It can be grown in about a 35- or 40-year rotation with some intermediate cuts. Some so-called supertrees can reach maturity even more quickly.

Along a narrow paved road just north across the Rappahannock, Geddes points out a series of areas cut over in the last dozen years or so and replanted to pine. Like huge steps, the pines are beginning to reach toward the sky. Most were planted in open areas that were cut over and the residue of slash burned under controlled conditions by the Division of Forestry. A year or two later, chemicals are sprayed by helicopter over the new growth to suppress the rapidly emerging hardwood sprouts.

In the mountains, it is a different story.

George Smith, supervisor of the George Washington National Forest, says the terrain and the relative lack of rainfall--the Shenandoah Valley and the mountains immediately to the west get only about 30 inches annually--means that the forest has "essentially low value hardwoods.

"This land was 95 percent cut over when we got it, and most of the trees are 60 to 80 years old. As a hardwood forest, it is relatively young," Smith says. "The market is just starting to open up for hardwoods. They are just beginning to be accepted as okay for paper. But even so stumpage values the worth of the tree standing in the forest have doubled or tripled in the last 10 years."

At the moment, however, Smith believes the million acres-plus of the George Washington is "a vegetative resource more valuable for wildlife management than for timber." The trees average only a 14-inch diameter, not generally large enough for saw timber. As a result, most of what is cut now goes for pulpwood or firewood.

Meanwhile, the forest has an estimated 43,000 deer, of which about 8,400 were taken by hunters last year. About 70 of the 350 bear and 2,260 of the estimated 15,000 wild turkeys were also killed by hunters.

The most important source of revenue to the forest these days is from payments on mineral leases. With the surge in oil and gas prices, the acreage under lease has risen to encompass nearly three-fourths of the forest. There are no producing wells, and the two drilled last year by Amoco Production Co. were dry. Nevertheless, the annual lease payments brought in $483,000 last year.

Most of the George Washington has never been managed for timber production, Smith says. Gradually, that is changing, but wildlife considerations are still a major part of such management. In a stand of hardwoods 60 to 70 years old, he says, the canopy of leaves shuts out the sunlight to the point that there is little low growth that could provide forage for deer. Within about two years after an area is clear-cut--that is, most or all of the trees removed at once--sprouting stumps provide a wealth of food for deer. "Old growth timber looks like a park, but a deer would starve to death there," Smith observes.

Current plans are for timber sales covering only about 3,000 acres this year. At one sale in Augusta County last fall, Robert Loyd bid $17,852 for the right to cut 315,000 board feet of pine and mixed hardwoods plus 127,000 cubic feet of smaller trees for pulp wood or firewood. That is just over 1,000 cords of the smaller size wood, and for that Loyd paid about $2 a cord.

Loyd, a big burly man who only recently has taken over his business from his father, outbid two others for the tract on Elkhorn Mountain above Broad Run. His sawmill is only a few miles away and he had a significant transportation advantage.

He and a two-man crew cut the trees with chain saws, dragged them down to a cleared area with a skidder that Loyd says cost him $20,000 used. A truck-mounted boom--another $15,000 and also used--moves the logs so they can be cut into proper lengths and loaded on Loyd's truck. Loyd has cut temporary roads into the tract using a new, small $44,000 bulldozer following lines laid out by the Forest Service.

When the weather turns bad, Loyd and his crew move down to the sawmill. He does not cut up the smaller logs, but rather lets anyone who wishes come in, cut them up for firewood and take them away at $15 for a pickup truckload. "I thought I could keep some wood ahead, but I can't," says Loyd. "It sure has kept my bank off my butt."

There is virtually no planting of seedlings or of land preparation such as occurs in the Tidewater. Generally sprouting from stumps does the job of reforestation. Stands are sometimes upgraded after two or three years by using hand applied chemicals to kill off less desired species. No aerial spraying is done.

A few years ago, the Conservation Foundation issued a report on the national forests in the Eastern United States called "The Lands Nobody Wanted." That that was the case when most of the land was acquired early in this century is clear from the purchase price: an average of less than $5 an acre.

Today, even remote, rough mountaintop land goes for at least $300 or $350 an acre. And whether there is timber on it has little to do with the price, Forest Service officials say. Land speculation is the reason it is so high.

But from wherever it comes in the state, the timber from Virginia forests is an essential part of the the region's economy, a part that people see every day with little realization of its economic importance.