Tree Farms May Be One Environmental Step Forward, Two Back

GOV. Jim Hunt is taking what can be useful, though not earthshaking, steps to protect the Neuse and other North Carolina rivers - provided he's not waylaid by special interests. Less reassuring is a general proposal to rely heavily on tree-planting to slow siltation and polluted runoff. Trees typically have deep root systems that provide good ground cover. But there's a huge difference between tree-planting and intensive tree-farming.

Is a 10,000-acre tree farm less harmful than a 10,000-acre city, which sheds almost all of its polluted rainwater into public waterways? Absolutely.... But here the emphasis shifts to what big tree-farming operations do, and where they do it. A tree farm is a place where neat rows of even-aged trees shade out the understory, along with its considerable soil-retention potential. In wetlands, which retain not only soil but waterborne pollutants, a tract is drained and cleared and competing vegetation is destroyed, sometimes by burning. Seedlings in a man-made "bed" are nurtured and hastened to maturity through the use of herbicides and fertilizers. And note that intensive tree-farming is largely exempt from the federal law from which wetlands derive most of their protection.

Offering incentives to small landowners who preserve forests can do no harm and much good.... As for the corporate giants, however, we can give ... credit for their innovations and still argue that the best way to ensure water quality is to dissuade them from destroying vast expanses of wetlands that are nature's buffer against pollution. Any policy that would encourage or facilitate the destruction of that buffer would be not merely wrong, but dangerous.

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