Whittlin' Dixie
Feds Announce Study of Southern Forests

By Glynn Wilson

As the world moves toward a paperless, digital world and the age of Cyberspace, in which printing presses and the need to cut down entire forests to make paper will become obsolete, the American paper industry continues to whittle the forests of the Southeast away, shipping the region's trees down the railroad tracks and rivers for short-term profits. Yet thanks in large measure to growing concern among scientists and environmentalists, the U.S. government is beginning to take notice.

      Three federal agencies are on the verge of announcing a long-sought-after collaborative study of the region's forestlands, according to Heinz Mueller, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's office of environmental assessment. He said the official press release should be sent out the second week of April by John Greis of the U.S. Forest Service.

      The Dogwood Alliance, an umbrella coalition of environmental groups, has been pushing for a study to assess the impact of 150 chip mills on the region's forests. It looks like that work is about to pay-off, according to Ciello Sand, a long-time champion of the region's environment.

      Mueller says this study, to be conducted by the Forest Service, E.P.A., and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will not just focus on chip mills.

      "It's more broadly focused on forest resources in the Southeast, 13 states," he said. "It will look at the whole health of the Southern forest."

      The study will also include the Tennessee Valley Authority in the states it serves and should take about two years, Mueller said.

      "It will be done with a lot of stakeholder input. We plan to work with all interested parties, the industries as well as public and environmental groups. We are going to try and develop some information that will be helpful not just to the federal agencies, but the states and other interested parties as well."

Scientists Concerned

      A group of 100 scientists led by E.O. Wilson of Harvard co-signed a letter to the E.P.A. and the Fish and Wildlife Service last year calling for a moratorium on chip mills in the South and a study of the regional impact on biodiversity.

      "We are concerned that chip mills are rapidly proliferating in this biologically rich region, promoting increased unsustainable logging and pressure on already threatened ecosystems," the letter said. "We urge you to undertake a region-wide study of the impacts and to oppose permitting new chip mills until the threats are more fully understood."

      While a moratorium was apparently never seriously considered by the agencies, the letter attracted the attention of the Clinton-Gore administration. Officials from seven federal agencies convened in Asheville, N.C. last September, to begin planning for this interagency impact study.

      Several forest types of national and global significance are found here in some of the richest temperate forests on earth. Along with the streams that flow through them, they are renowned for the diversity of native plants, fish, mussels, amphibians and migratory birds, including some threatened and geographically restricted species at risk of extinction.

      There are nearly 150 chip mills operating in the region, 100 built in the past decade, with more proposed or currently under construction. Each high-capacity mill can go through 10,000 acres per year at maximum production. Best estimates suggest that clear-cutting to supply them consumes a total of 1.2 million acres a year. Concerns involve the harvest of new species and smaller trees, the loss of mature trees, impacts to threatened and endangered species and migratory birds, the loss of wildlife habitat and reduced water quality due to soil erosion from clear-cutting.

      According to a study released in 1996 by the Southern Appalachian Assessment, the chip mill industry produces far fewer jobs than other wood product industries such as saw mills, which are being negatively impacted by the proliferation of chip mills.

      "Few workers, households, and communities can count on the industry as a reliable generator of secure jobs and higher incomes," the report concluded. "The number of jobs and the amount of income generated per acre logged will become smaller and smaller."

      For instance, Champion paper's investments in land and the Royal Blue chip mill in East Tennessee's Campbell County total $13 million, and it takes only about five people to run the mill. Champion employs a grand total of 12 people in Tennessee, about one per $1.1 million investment.

History of Devastation

      The phenomenon may lead to the third boom-to-bust cycle in the region's history. From 1890 to 1940, logging companies cut all but the most remote and steep slopes in the South to provide raw materials for houses and factories in a growing industrialized country. The South's great longleaf pines, mere seedlings when Columbus came ashore, were lost forever, replaced by slash pine and loblolly pine plantations, largely planted by the Civilian Conservation Core during the Great Depression and under the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.

      Steel replaced wood as the material of choice for warships and destroyers by the time World War II came, but not before the notion of an old growth forest in the South had become a fading memory. That record of devastation is now available on yellowing black-and-white film in archives and books. A few small patches remain, including the giant yellow poplars and the few longleaf pines still standing in the Sipsey Wilderness Area of the Bankhead National Forest in extreme North Alabama, for example.

      In the early 20th century, two-man teams cut trees from sun-up to sun-down with giant cross saws. Horses and mules dragged the trees on cables to sprawling train tracks — and a fast track out of the region. This time around, the efficiency of the machinery for felling trees is unparalleled, like something out of an Edward Abbey novel. Mammoth bulldozers drag whole trees on cables up the steepest of mountain slopes. It's called cable-logging and you have to see it to believe it. Depending on your point of view, logging methods today are technological, industrial marvels, highly productive and cheap — or seen as disastrous for the environment and local economies.

      Champion officials say all the chips from the Royal Blue mill in Campbell County go by train straight to the Canton, N.C. pulp and paper mill, famous for polluting the Pigeon River. Yet many of the other chip millers are selling the South's renewable forest resources down the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway to Korean and Japanese companies to make fax, computer and high-quality magazine paper to sell back in the U.S. market. This registers as a net loss on the International Trade balance sheets, and as a loss to local economies, especially for the local saw-timber folks who have trouble competing for trees to cut.

      Perhaps the region-wide study will result in recommendations to curb some of the clear-cutting that is whittling away the South's forests, to preserve more woodland acres for the enjoyment of future generations.

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Copyright The Southerner 1999. Photo of Champion chip mill in East Tennessee by Doug Murray

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