Whitlin’ Dixie

Chip Mills Supplying the Paper Industry Are Clear-Cutting the South

In the thicket of the Carolina Lowlands, the whirring buzz and grind of a lone chip mill disturbs the summer symphony of rustling branches, crickets and the guttural call of wild turkeys. As the highly-automated leviathan roars with efficiency, stripping bark and grinding trees into usable flakes for the paper and pulp industries, hunters and environmentalists do a little roaring of their own. Concerned the voracious chippers will devastate Southern forests, their interest groups are calling for heightened regulations and a moratorium on new mills until their impacts have been studied.

But government subsidies and American appetites for paper keep the mechanized chippers busy, as they venture deeper into forests in search of pine and hardwood lumber to satisfy the insatiable demand once met by the Northwest.

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“In just 10 years, the number of chip mills in the region has more than tripled—to at least 150—each devouring an average of 10,000 acres of forest a year,” says Danna Smith, executive director of the Dogwood Alliance, a consortium of environmental groups opposing chip mill operations. And with each American using up 688 pounds of paper a year (the Chinese consume just three), chip mills are not only profiting, they’re expanding.

A year ago, biologist E. O. Wilson and 100 other scientists co-signed a letter calling for a moratorium on chip mills until a federal study is completed. Their main concerns were disappearing hardwood forests, impacts on wildlife and waterways, and clearcutting.

Environmentalists have been quick to point fingers at chip mills for devastating forestry practices. But the industry insists it’s “out of the loop” concerning timber cuts, since operators purchase their supply from private landholders. Industry officials are so infuriated, many refused to comment.

The line connecting chip mills to clearcuts and destructive forestry isn’t a straight one, but it is visible. Dean Carson of the South Carolina Forestry Commission argues that chips can be transported more efficiently, using less energy, than large pieces of timber, and mills can utilize the whole tree. But processing the whole tree is exactly what has brought the mills under fire: because lumber is chipped into one-inch pieces, any size scrap of timber will do. With new markets opening up for treetops, undersized trees, and forked or crooked specimens, landowners have added incentive to clearcut a site for quick profits, instead of harvesting selected trees to be cut into boards. And timber previously left behind to continue maturing, or that provided wildlife habitat or eroded to replenish soils, now finds itself in the steely mouths of the chippers.

A 1998 U.S. Forest Service report says clearcutting accounts for 13 percent of logged land in the South. And because the chips are needed for everything from rayon and plastics to particleboard and paper, chip markets continue growing. Timber giant Willamette Industries says chip mills allow landowners to merchandise otherwise unusable trees, discouraging forestry practices like “high-grading” (cutting only the healthiest trees). “Clearcutting is often the best tool to assure a rich, diverse forest,” claims Willamette’s web site. “Many songbirds and other types of wildlife require open areas for nesting and food gathering.”

“Companies are working with private landowners to teach them sustainable harvesting,” says Carson. “They provide free seedlings, the state provides management assistance, and people generally take it,” he adds. The trouble is, the foresters doling out advice are usually trained in industry-friendly timber management.

As jobs grow scarce in many rural regions, chip mills have become the matches to dry kindling in local council debates. Because chip mills employ very few people—averaging six to 15 employees—and an increasing number of wood chips are being exported, local economies are losing out on much-needed processing jobs. Pallet makers, saw millers and other solid wood manufacturers have criticized chip mills, accusing them of driving up hardwood chip prices as Japan becomes more and more willing to pay top dollar for exported chips. Furniture makers and sawmill operators fret over supply, too, as forests continue dwindling from chip mill impacts.

“Removal of softwoods in the South has already exceeded growth by 12 to 14 percent,” estimates Smith. This forces the industry to resort to hardwoods to make up for the lack of resources; in fact, hardwood chip exports increased by 500 percent from 1989 to 1995 in the Southeast. “Chip mills can devour in one month the amount of wood an average sawmill consumes in a year,” explains Smith.

Carson argues that in many southern states, growth is exceeding cutting. “But the industry is promoting more monoculture plantings to meet increasing projected demand,” adds Smith. “‘Plant ‘em thick and cut ‘em quick’ is their motto. And there are no government programs in place to encourage diversity. The incentives are for genetically-engineered loblolly pines.” The Dogwood Alliance estimates that by 2020, 70 percent of southern forests will have been converted to pine plantations to meet paper demand.

But industry is making an effort to recover more materials, acknowledges Smith. Carson estimates the industry is reclaiming 50 percent of all paper now, and less efficient mills are closing down. “The trend now is moving toward engineered wood—things like plywood and particle board,” says Carson. “You can get 100 percent utilization of every tree harvested with those.”

And while the industry has no incentive to curb demand, it’s gradually looking at alternatives to the fiber supply. Smith argues the changes aren’t happening fast enough to save Southern forests. “The pulp industry invested hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the capacity of its pulp mills,” she says. “To use agriculture waste, hemp or kenaf in the mix would require an enormous amount of money to upgrade. These companies are heavily invested in timberland, too. The industry needs investments in different infrastructure.”

The states have collected data for a federal Environmental Impact Study, which is now underway. But as long as paper demand escalates, say environmentalists, the mills will keep chipping away.