Wood chips, and controversy, fly in South

Growth of logging in Southeast prompts protests from landowners, environmentalists.

Nestled in an ancient valley in the heart of the Ozark Mountains, the two-year-old high-tech chip mill here produces nearly 200,000 pounds of quarter-sized wood wafers per year - and a ton of controversy.

It's an argument tied to what some see as a harbinger of a dramatic shift in logging from America's Pacific Northwest to the South.

The small chips produced by plants like this one are eventually made into everything from particle board to grocery bags to high-quality computer paper. Chip mills, whose numbers have more than quadrupled to 150 in the Southeast in the past 15 years, are moneymakers because they use sawmill scrap wood and smaller logs typically harvested by clear-cut methods. Unlike the Northwest, private landowners control almost 85 percent of forest land in the Southeast, and environmentalists worry that private landowners looking to make a quick buck will be tempted to clear-cut great swaths of the Southeastern forest.

And that has set off a debate over clear-cutting itself, private property rights, silted streams, loss of wildlife habitat, and vacation homes with a view.

"It's becoming quite extensive, no question about it," says Norman Christensen, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "Much of the dialogue on this issue has been conditioned by experiences in the Northwest, but the Southeast is unique. Here, environmental considerations are certainly important, but suburbanization and vacation homes in forested areas are fundamentally changing the nature of the land's economic value."

The Show-Me State certainly isn't the only locale where private landowners are saying, "Show me the money." More than 1.2 million acres of woodlands are harvested throughout the Southeast each year.

A variety of factors sparked the trend. Restrictions in the Northwest have reduced logging there by nearly 45 percent from its high in the early 1980s.

The run-up in Southeast logging has set off alarm bells among a broad coalition of groups. Environmentalists think increased runoff from barren hillsides will degrade water quality in rivers and streams and lead to loss of wildlife habitat. Hunters and fishermen share many of their concerns.

But the debate's wild card seems to be affluent and politically savvy second-home residents new to the woods, many of whom decry the unsightliness of clear-cuts. When united, they form a powerful political force.

Indeed, public outcry has led to political action in several states. The governors of Missouri and North Carolina formed advisory committees to study the impact of proliferating chip mills and clear-cutting. In Tennessee, a similar advisory committee has already made its recommendations. And in South Carolina, a coalition of 30 organizations pressed the governor last year for a moratorium on licensing chip mills there and to initiate a study.

In addition, several federal agencies and 13 states are doing a two-year study of the economic and environmental impact of increased logging in the Southeast.

The wood-products industry has cooperated with the various studies, even as it vigorously disputes many of its critics' fundamental points. Forestry companies argue that their operations bring cash and jobs to economically depressed regions, that their methods of logging actually provide environmental benefit to forests, and that high-tech chip mills are helping America's competitiveness by fully utilizing scrap wood from sawmills and logging operations that in the past was discarded or burned.

The wood-products industry also contends that growth in lumbering in the Southeast is slower than it appears, with many of the satellite chip mills simply replacing older and less-efficient traditional sawmills. Still, the industry acknowledges past sins.

"Development of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative began in the early 1990s, when our industry realized it no longer had a PR problem, it had a credibility problem, and the only way to change that perception was to change our behavior in a way that met the expectations of the public," says John Heissenbuttel, an American Forest and Paper Association vice president. "We've done that."

The SFI is a collection of principles and practices agreed to by forestry companies. While the overall effectiveness of the program is difficult to gauge, it has won grudging praise from some environmentalists.

The idea that clear-cutting provides environmental benefit to the forest might strike the average urbanite as counterintuitive, to say the least. But in the Ozark highlands, amid a stand of hardwoods in a buffer zone between a public road and a clear-cut, a visitor was shown a dozen trees that varied in radius from six inches to more than 18 inches and from 15 feet in height to more than 50.

"All of those trees are roughly the same age - 80 years old," says a Willamette Industries forester who asked not to be identified. "Some are stronger and grow faster than others. People say, 'Why don't you just take the large trees and leave the rest.' If you do that, you leave the weak trees, not necessarily the young ones.... Young oak need light to grow. So do pines. It's healthier to start over [by clear cutting]."

While Willamette Industries' policy limits clear-cuts to 50 acres, there are no such legal limits. As a result, clear-cuts on private land are sometimes 500 acres or more.

Compromise solutions to the chip mills and clear-cutting controversy are proving elusive. In Missouri, an advisory committee is dithering. Overlying the debate are the diametrically opposed viewpoints of private landowners, some of whom see economic value in cutting their trees and others, principally vacation landowners, who see economic value (read enhanced property value) in intact forests.

Looking down a clear-cut Ozark ridge, a forester argued vigorously that clear-cutting is the best way to maintain long-term forest health. "Sure it's unsightly. It's like a new baby being born. It's beautiful over time, but it's ugly to start with."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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