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A new environmental battleground recently emerged in the Southern United States as multinational paper companies and other timber giants shifted their search for wood from the overcut forests of the Pacific Northwest to the recovering forests of the Southeast. Trends of increased production, mechanization, exports, and overcutting that were pervasive in the West are now clearly visible in the Southeast. The fight to protect the forests in the Southeast from this recent invasion by the timber industry demonstrates a clear need for a new political/economic paradigm.
These highly mechanized operations devour more wood in one month than an average-size saw mill uses in an entire year.
The most visible evidence of the geographical shift in the industry is the proliferation of chip mills-facilities that grind whole logs into wood chips for paper or particle board. These highly mechanized operations devour more wood in one month than an average-size saw mill uses in an entire year. Since the mid-1980's, at least 100 chip mills have sprung up like measles across the landscape of the South, causing unprecedented forest destruction. Each mill produces, on average, 300,000 tons of wood chips per year-equal to about 8,000 acres of forests. Since there are now 140 chip mills in the region, the annual forest loss associated with chip mills is approximately 1.2 million acres.
Unlike the debate in the Pacific Northwest, the fight is not over public lands. The overwhelming majority of wood going into the chippers is coming from private lands. So, as the industry shifted to the South, so did the debate. Should we "regulate" logging on private lands? Not a very popular solution in a region where the sanctity of private land ownership is held almost as high as the Bible. Not very likely either, because the largest landowners in the region are large corporations that have literally become ingrained in the local, state, and national political structure.
The fight in the South doesn't center around the last stands of ancient forests. Virtually all primal or virgin forests in the Southeast were wiped out at the beginning of this century. Chip mills primarily chip young trees as small as 5 inches in diameter. Consequently, grassroots forest activists have had to redefine the political debate.
If a forest is managed for wood chips it could be cut on continuous rotations as short as 20 years, thereby reducing the forest to its lowest economic and ecological value -- a fiber farm.
In chipping tremendous volumes of trees, chip mills have encouraged massive, industrial-scale clearcutting across the South. The handsaws and horses of the early 1900s have been replaced by highly mechanized equipment, allowing the industry to cut more forest in less time with fewer people. Although chip mills aren't grinding old trees, they encourage short cutting cycles. If a forest is managed for wood chips it could be cut on continuous rotations as short as 20 years, thereby reducing the forest to its lowest economic and ecological value-a fiber farm.
In a precedent-setting move in the early 1990s, federal agencies documented their concerns about the impact of chip mills in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The two-year study, which looked at the secondary and cumulative, off-site logging impacts of three proposed chip mills, documented how accelerated clearcutting to feed the mills would have significantly impacted water quality, wildlife habitat, and threatened and endangered species. All three chip mill permits were denied.
In particular, the agencies concluded that the operation of the mills would have adversely impacted bird diversity within a 42-county area surrounding the mills. The federal agencies pointed to a number of studies that show that the lowest bird diversity occurs during the early successional stage of a forest (immediately following a clearcut), and that bird diversity peaks at or near the level at which a forest reaches the old-growth stage.
The EIS concluded, "If a stand is managed with a short rotation length to produce pole-sized trees for pulp or chipping, no habitat would develop for species adapted to sawtimber or old age conditions." The EIS also concluded that if one or more chip mills were operating, older forests would rapidly decrease, having an adverse impact on populations of bird species such as the pileated woodpecker, cerulean and worm eating warblers, and scarlet tanagers.
The study also concluded that certain plant species such as bloodroot, lilies, trilliums, and ferns would have effectively been eliminated as they are not likely to return even in reforested areas. Salamander populations, which depend on moist, shady habitat, would have also been adversely impacted by the hotter, drier soil conditions resulting from large clearcuts. The study found that the increased clearcutting to feed the proposed mills would have an adverse effect on aquatic life as a result of stream siltation. Finally, the agencies concluded that in only 20 years, hard mast (i.e. nut) production in the hardwood forests would have been depleted by 44%, impacting deer, turkey, squirrels, and black bears that depend on hard mast for food.
...in only 20 years, hard mast (i.e. nut) production in the hardwood forests would have been depleted by 44%, impacting deer, turkey, squirrels, and black bears...
Despite these warnings, there are 140 chip mills in the Southeast, with seven currently planned or under construction. The cumulative impact these facilities are having on biodiversity, water quality, and the local forest-dependent economy continues virtually unchecked. Removals of softwoods throughout the region have already exceeded growth and even the industry is predicting a shortage of hardwoods within the next ten years.
In effect, the Southeastern US has been colonized by large timber corporations. The political structure, including the permitting process for chip mills, the tax structure, and subsidies, facilitates the extraction of the forest surrounding a chip mill despite little or no economic benefit to the community in which it operates. Industrial forestry is viewed by many in the government as "reforestation."
With the exception of the EIS in 1993, federal agencies have failed to comply with mandates under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in issuing chip mill permits. Only site-specific impacts are considered. Local and state regulations throughout the region simply fail to provide any basis for addressing the logging impacts as a prerequisite to granting a chip mill permit.
Grassroots pressure and litigation have been the only forces to date that have drawn attention to the proliferating wood chipping industry in the Southeast. Thirty-five citizens' groups from across the region united last year as the "Dogwood Alliance" in calling for a moratorium on the permitting of new chip mills until federal, state, and local agencies assess the current impacts of the existing facilities. Although no moratorium has been issued, the State of North Carolina with assistance from EPA, Region 4, is undertaking the first ever statewide study of the woodchipping industry. Other states, such as Tennessee and Missouri, are looking to see what happens in North Carolina as citizen concern mounts.
The Southeastern US has emerged as the new battleground for forest protection in the US. Fortunately, demands for a new economic and political paradigm are surfacing across the region as citizens speak out against the indiscriminate clearcutting that's occurring in the wake of 140 chip mills. The warning is clear: whether on public or private lands, ancient or second-growth (or third-growth) forests, industrial forestry and corporate colonialism must be pushed to extinction.
For more information contact:
Danna Smith, Network Coordinator, Dogwood Alliance
PO Box 407, Cedar Mountain, NC 28718
(704) 877 5865, email@example.com
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