Plantation Pines

The Paper Industry Moves South

Flying over the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year in a Cessna 180 operated by the nonprofit group Southwings, writer Chris Camuto could clearly see evidence of the park’s enormous and breathtaking biodiversity, home to an estimated 100,000 species.

The scenery changed when the plane crossed the Tennessee River to the Cumberland Plateau. The river itself hosts giant silt plumes, which Camuto traces to the river’s uneasy neighbors—giant corporate-owned loblolly pine plantations totally lacking in the biodiversity that enriches the Great Smoky Mountains.

Clear-cuts like this one on the Cumberland Plateau are devastating native hardwood forests and paving the way for plantation planting of non-native loblolly pine.© Cielo Sand

"During the past 20 years, the native oak-hickory forests of the Cumberland Plateau have been turned into loblolly plantations at an alarming rate," Camuto says. A clear consequence of the plantations is the proliferation of enormous clear-cuts on hillsides and flat land alike, encouraging erosion and damage to the watershed. A devastating invasion of pine bark beetles—feasting on their favorite food, undeterred by inedible hardwoods—cropped up in 1999 and has encouraged hasty salvage clear-cutting, making the problem that much worse.

John Evans, a professor of biology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, says that the natural hardwood forest is "a vibrant flora and fauna community," and that if replaced with a monoculture "the crop fails in the first rotation, because the beetles go from being a native disturbance to a native epidemic. It only gets worse when you increase their food supply. One wonders what kind of planning went into these silvicultural practices." Evans notes that some regions, including northern Alabama, have abandoned pine plantations because of the beetle problem, as has Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest.

Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has commented that plantation forests are 90 to 95 percent less biologically diverse than natural forests. But this fact hasn’t slowed the rapid transformation of Southern hardwood forests into monoculture tree farms.

A Disputed Assessment

The most complete view of what’s happening down South is contained in the U.S. Forest Service’s "Southern Forest Resource Assessment Study," released in 2001. Interpretation of this monumental document is somewhat dependent on political perspective. For ForestEthics and the activist Dogwood Alliance, the study reveals that these biological treasures contain the highest tree species diversity in the U.S., and the world’s biggest concentration of freshwater aquatic diversity. Some 90 percent of these forests are privately owned (with five million owners), and therefore lack legal protections. The result is that 14 forest community types have been reduced by what ForestEthics calls "the most unregulated, highly mechanized arm of industrial forestry" to less than two percent of their original range.

The report notes that 40 percent of Southern native pine forests have been turned into intensively managed single-species pulp plantations, making the South (with 30 million acres of farmed trees) the largest paper-producing region in the world, accounting for 25 percent of the paper industry worldwide. Pulpwood is now the biggest wood commodity in the South, yielding 77 percent of the nation’s entire supply.

Not surprisingly, the North Carolina Forestry Association (NCFA) analyzes the data a bit differently. The group sees a "dynamic" Southern forest landscape that "has been and will likely remain relatively stable." NCFA says the region will actually benefit from the 10 million acres of former agricultural land that the report estimates will be converted to forest by 2020. From 1990 to 2000, the South added a million acres of forest, but almost all of it was pine plantations. Although environmental groups compare tree plantations to biological deserts, NCFA says forestry practices "provide important benefits for breeding bird species."

The group’s views are echoed by John Stanturf, a project leader with the U.S. Forest Service in the region. Stanturf maintains that much of the former agricultural land reclaimed for plantations "isn’t even good enough to grow corn. A lot of it was burned, and hogs rooted through it. It was nasty, abandoned land. In the hillier regions of the Piedmont, it was old cotton land and subject to severe erosion. Pine trees are about the only thing that will grow there." And loblolly pines are native Southerners, he adds—though he admits they’re not native to most of the plantation areas.

Stanturf says that people who actually visit the plantations won’t call them biological deserts. "Many are rented out to deer-hunting clubs, so they have to be productive," he says. He notes that such shrubby growths as native gullberry and spice bush are proof that managed forests aren’t monocultures.

This benign vision of sustainable forestry is belied by groups like the Dogwood Alliance, based amidst the pines of Asheville, North Carolina. In place of the flannel-shirted independent contractor with a chainsaw are 103 pulp mills, each grinding up 100 truckloads of trees per day. Instead of many loggers making a living wage, the wood is unloaded by giant cranes that can hold 10 tons of raw material at a time.

The end product of all this industrial activity is postage stamp-sized wood chips, which Allen Hershkovitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council says often end up as Japanese toilet paper. "Most consumers don’t even know that toilet paper comes from trees," says Hershkovitz, whose group is working with the Dogwood Alliance and others to create public awareness and a boycott of tissue made from virgin forests on the Cumberland Plateau.

Frontline Fighters

On the frontline of this fight is the Dogwood Alliance, which is alerting the world to the plight of the Southern forests. According to Scott Quaranda, the group’s communications director, the 1980s began a massive paper industry shift from the depleted Pacific Northwest to the South. Making this switch possible was new chip mill processes enabling the grinding up (in a device resembling a giant pencil sharpener) of smaller-diameter whole logs.

Between 1985 and 1998, 100 new chip mills were built, bringing the total mostly in Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia to around 160, with the ability to process between 25,000 and 500,000 tons a year. Quaranda also quotes from the Southern Forest Resource Assessment Study in pointing out that 75 percent of all pine plantations are converted from natural forests—not the burned-out agricultural land cited by Stanturf.

Dogwood is fighting the rising tide through a consumer boycott strategy that has proven extremely effective for groups such as Rainforest Action Network (RAN). "We quickly found that trying to get legislation passed in the South was like beating our heads against the wall," Quaranda says. "And when the Bush administration came in we knew it was pretty difficult to get anything through on the federal level."

Targeting individual companies has resulted in dramatic victories. With RAN in the lead, Home Depot agreed in 1999 to phase out products coming from old-growth forests. Lowe’s Companies capitulated the following year, without a shot fired. "The com

pany didn’t want a Home Depot-type campaign waged against it," says Quaranda. "They came to us, making the commitment to phase out wood products from "endangered" forests, and specifically cited the Southern region."

In 2002 Staples also agreed to phase out purchases from endangered forests. This is highly significant for Southern plantations because Georgia Pacific and International Paper are not only major Staples suppliers, but also the biggest Southern plantation foresters. Losing Staples as a customer is likely to have a devastating impact on the industry, especially when combined with millions of dollars in pine beetle losses and record low prices for wood pulp. Dogwood has also successfully targeted Office Depot, which agreed in March to take part in a conservation alliance.

Conner Bailey, a sociologist at Alabama’s Auburn University, says that pulp mills consume 40 percent of all the timber harvested in Alabama, but provide well-paying jobs for only a relatively small number of people in the state. "They’ve been the beneficiaries of tax abatements that save them millions of dollars every year, but they don’t pay property taxes or contribute to the schools," he says. Bailey says many Alabama mills are nominally owned by the state through industrial development bonds, but in some cases the major bond holder is the company itself.

The mechanized nature of the mills has turned logging into a capital-intensive industry. "The guy with a pickup truck and a chainsaw is out of business," Bailey says. Could the many problems with pine monocultures open the door for kenaf production in the South? It’s far too early to tell, though some growers have had success with the crop. Brian Baldwin, a professor at Mississippi State University, has had experience growing kenaf on an experimental basis, and he sees it as a "wonderful alternative," but facing some daunting obstacles. Kenaf is a very light fiber, and existing paper mills would need to spend millions to accommodate its special qualities.

One company that has made kenaf work as a cash crop is Greene Natural Fibers (GNF) of Snow Hill, North Carolina. Eastern North Carolina’s high rainfall and southern latitude provide a perfect growing environment for kenaf, says the company’s Andy Moye. GNF does not make paper, but has found specialty markets in two highly disparate areas: automotive products and horse bedding.

Kenaf is still an infant industry in the South, but with plantation problems mounting like pine beetles on a loblolly, it might have a brighter future.