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Not So Clear-Cut

Logging companies say the milling of Tennessee's forests is good for the economy and the environment. Critics challenge them on both counts.

by Glynn R. Wilson
The call came on that rare dry day this June. The National Weather Service reported a break in the rain, a temporary reprieve from the relentless action of the jet stream and stationary low that hung over East Tennessee for what seemed like months. SouthWings pilot Hume Davenport and Dogwood Alliance activist Cielo Myczack prepared to take off from Chattanooga to make the short flight to Island Home airport in Knoxville. They had waited for weeks to fly north for an update on the status of the massive clear-cutting taking place in a six-county area just north of Knoxville.

"It's going to be nasty Saturday and Sunday. This may be our best chance," Davenport said.

The four-seater Cessna wrestled a little wind coming into Knoxville and on the takeoff for points north. Downtown Knoxville and the afternoon sun's glare on the World's Fair Park Sunsphere gave way to rolling terrain covered in the early summer rain-drenched green of East Tennessee's native forest land.

Cruising through the sky at about 1,500 feet, 140 mph, the scene changed at the approach to Campbell County. Lush Appalachian central highlands forest gave way to huge swaths of desert tan clear-cuts, some smoking from the fires of burning tree tops dead on the ground. This is what Davenport and Myczack came to see.

At the Campbell County Airport, the plane takes on another passenger, Doug Murray, who set up an environmental group called "The Center" three years ago. In the air again, his long dark hair flailing in the breeze, Murray points to the cause of the deforestation and the current object of local environmentalists' fears: a wood chip mill.

"The native hardwood forests are being stripped for the domestic and Asian pulp mills and, in some cases, converted to pine plantations," Murray says, opening the Cessna window to take pictures from high above the mill. "They say the forests are in terrible shape and need to be cut down for their own health and benefit. We don't buy it. This is deforestation on a massive scale, clearly unsustainable. It needs to be stopped, and only the people of Tennessee can stop it."

Champion International, the multi-national pulp and paper producer known in this area for polluting the Pigeon River, is

one of the prime targets for the activists, who say clear-cutting forests

into half-inch square chips to make paper and other things is bad for the environment and the economy of the region. Wood products companies and some forestry experts counter that clear-cutting is a viable, sustainable forestry technique. They say the market for chips comes at a time when the forests that remain in Tennessee are of such low quality that the only recourse is to cut them for chips and hope better management will hasten the rise of a healthier, more productive forest in the future.

A Bleak History

During the past few years, Champion sold out its vast properties in Montana to the Plum Creek Timber Company. And in the past year-and-a-half, it orchestrated a land deal to buy 85,000 acres in a four-county area in Tennessee, mostly in Campbell County, with some holdings in Anderson, Scott, and Morgan. The multibillion dollar company built a chip mill in the part of Caryville known as Royal Blue. And along with companies like Huber and several US and Korean corporations, it began a program of cutting native hardwood forests with a determination not seen in this area since the cut-and-run logging days of the early 1900s, when sawyers clear-cut the South's forests from North Carolina to Texas.

From 1890 to 1940, logging companies cut all but the most remote and steep slopes in the South to provide raw materials for houses and factories in a growing industrialized country. Eventually, the demand for wood slackened as steel became the construction material of choice for the military and other industries. By then, though, the notion of an old growth forest in the South existed mainly as a fading memory. The record of that devastation is available on yellowing black and white film in archives and books. In those days, two-man teams cut trees from sun up to sun down with giant cross saws. Horses and mules drug the trees on cables to sprawling train tracks, which whisked the timber away.

This time around, the efficiency of the machinery for felling trees is unparalleled, like something out of an Edward Abbey novel. Mammoth bulldozers drag whole trees on cables up the steepest of mountain slopes. It's called cable logging, and you have to see it to believe it. On one hand, logging methods today are technological, industrial marvels--highly productive and cheap. For instance, Champion's investment in East Tennessee land and the chip mill totals $13 million, and it takes only four to six men to run it. Much of the logging itself is hired out to local contractors who must submit competitive bids. Champion employs a grand total of 12 people in Tennessee, about one per $1.1 million investment.

Champion officials say all the chips from the Royal Blue mill go by train straight to the company's Canton, NC, pulp and paper mill. Champion maintains the mill will bring in $12 million annually to the local economy. But critics estimate that area saw mills may run out of available wood fiber--and out of business--in five to 10 years.

While the wood products market is a bit volatile and prices vary, estimates place the average value of a saw timber tree at $400. But when taken for chips, the smaller, lower quality trees go for about $4, from land where property taxes average only $1.50 to $2 an acre. It's quick and easy to turn a forest into chips. The size of the log doesn't matter, and the transportation method is cheap. All of it amounts to what environmentalists are calling "a quiet rape" of the Southeastern environment.

Too Many Trees?

Champion likes to clear-cut 40 to 60 acre plots and allow natural regeneration, says veteran Champion manager John Flynn. The company has an air pollution permit to chip 256 tons per hour, 10 hours a day, for a yearly production of 400,000 tons of chips from 450,000 tons of trees. At that level, Murray estimates Champion will consume 10,000 acres a year--too much, he says, to allow for real reforestation.

Natural regeneration means the company doesn't plant trees but leaves behind seed trees. It will take between 30 and 100 years to re-create the semblance of a forest, depending on your definition of a forest, providing nature is allowed to take its course. Much depends on soil conditions and cyclical weather patterns, as well as pests, including a growing threat from foreign species transplanted into the region from abroad. Yet the idea on this Tennessee land is to cut it again in 30 years or less, as soon as the trees reach harvestable size. Critics argue that the presence of a certain number of board feet of timber, in the form a limited number of economically "valuable" trees, does not a forest make.

"When you're recutting every 30 or 40 years, you're never going to get the benefits of a regenerated forest," Murray says. "You're not going to be producing any saw logs. You're talking small, immature trees. So talking about gaining quality forest is a moot point. It's all going to go for pulp forests" in perpetuity, or until the soil crashes.

Concerned with the potential for massive tree harvests and added costs to local economies, three Tennessee counties have passed a 15-cent per ton severance tax on trees cut for pulp wood. The tax is already in effect in Wayne County and is expected to be approved in Benton and Anderson counties in July. The Anderson County bill provides an exemption for land owners holding less than 100 acres, a measure designed to protect small private farmers.

"We don't want some company coming in here and cutting the landscape of hundreds of acres for a short term profit where we get nothing out of it," said Wimp Shoopman, an Anderson County commissioner and a member of the legislative committee that proposed and drafted the tax bill. Anderson County's tax would mainly raise revenue to repair roads damaged by logging trucks. It could come to a final vote of the 16-member County Commission when it meets July 7. Enactment requires a three-quarters majority vote.

The other major concern prompted by clear-cutting is the health of rivers running through the affected forests. Myczack and her husband Leaf are known for long involvement with the South's environmental wars and for living in and patrolling the Tennessee River on the 30-foot sailboat Broadened Horizons, made from wood fished out of the river. She says clear-cutting leads to soil erosion and allows the top soil, called silt, to clog streams and kill fish, a major concern of the US Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"We are looking at the cumulative impacts," says Myczack, who recently took the reins as network coordinator of the Dogwood Alliance, a coalition of 33 environmental groups. "It takes 50 to 100 years for a hardwood forest to truly regenerate. Their appetite is insatiable. In places they cut right down to stream banks, leaving little or no buffer. You can see the siltation, especially after this much rain."

The Myczacks and other activists beat back the chippers in 1993 by stopping three new docks for loading timber from being permitted by the US Army Corps of Engineers on the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway. They thought the victory amounted to a virtual moratorium on chip mills on the Tennessee River, but they were wrong. The chippers went into the forests and began using trucks and trains to move logs to existing docks. To fight back, the Dogwood Alliance, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have sued the Corps of Engineers to stop chip loading at another 12 existing docking facilities.

"We've been watching the clear-cuts grow and grow," Myczack says. "When you fly over, you really get a sense of urgency."

Doing It Right

That's a lot of "gloom and doom," according to Ted Dailey, a forester with the state's Forestry Division. Dailey says he was "tickled" Champion located in East Tennessee, primarily due to the company's public stance on using "best management practices" to ensure the long-term viability of forests.

"I admit, a fresh clear-cut is ugly. Clear-cutting gets maligned, but a lot of good comes from it," Dailey says. The "high-valued" species--oak, ash, and walnut--need sunlight hitting the ground, "or the red maple will come up. The ground needs to be flooded with sunlight, it's a vicious fight for sunlight." Dailey notes hickory is no good for the chip mills, because the bark is impossible to get off efficiently (Champion and the other chip mill operators sell bark for mulch).

Dr. George Hopper, professor and head of the University of Tennessee department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries, says there are "justifiable concerns" about the environmental and economic consequences of the recent upsurge in clear-cutting and chip mill operations in the region, but he's not overly worried.

"I personally don't think we have to worry about a massive amount of clear-cutting, on the level of 85,000 acres during the next 10 years," he says. "That would not be sustainable. If I suspected that was going to happen, I would be the town crier."

Hopper says Champion, Huber, and other companies are chipping away the forests of Tennessee now because a market has opened up for using low-grade trees to make paper, cross-ties, pallets, and other wood products. He says the companies are doing a service by clearing the land to make way for higher-grade, higher-value trees, which have been selectively over-harvested for lumber and furniture.

"I believe a market economy is good, and the more competition, the better the price and, hopefully, the better our forests will be managed," Hopper says. "We did overcut the large, high-quality saw logs and the furniture-quality veneer trees. That's something we should be concerned about...Some would debate me on this, but I believe over the long run, this market situation for low-grade trees will improve the management of our forests. That includes protection for species diversity, water quality, and road building practices. I'm not necessarily pro clear-cutting, but I'm not against it if it's done right."

Dr. Lee Barclay, the Fish and Wildlife supervisor for the Tennessee-Kentucky field office, has a reputation for opposing the chip mill operations based on the potential damage to rivers, streams, and wildlife habitat. Yet he agreed to serve on an advisory panel to Champion.

"Champion wants to do the right thing, as long as it doesn't cost an arm and a leg," he says. His concern is for the many species of mussels in the region, already endangered from development activities, along with a number of plant and animal species. This includes India and gray bats, which are forest-dependent and could be directly or indirectly harmed by clear-cutting on the scale now underway.

Barclay has joined the efforts of the Dogwood Alliance to get a long-term study in the works by the Environmental Protection Agency, which may be picking up some steam in Washington, according to a letter from the Region 4 EPA office in Atlanta dated June 13. The EPA regional administrator has agreed to set up a meeting with the Dogwood Alliance, as well as other stakeholders from industry and other government agencies, to consider the impacts of chip mills in the Southeast.

(Concerns about chip milling are not new in the nation's capital. When Al Gore was still in the Senate, he issued a strongly-worded statement opposing chip mills in Tennessee. But activists have some reason to question his commitment these days--some of the land to which Champion holds logging rights is part of the Gore family estate. Efforts were unsuccessful to obtain comments from Gore on clear-cutting and chip mill operations occurring now.)

Survey Needed

Hopper says a new inventory of forests in the area is needed and that a movement is afoot to conduct forest surveys annually. The US Forest Service is in the process of conducting a 10-year updated inventory of the forests in the South and in Tennessee, due out by 1999. The last survey came out in 1989.

The trio in the plane are conducting a survey of their own, albeit an informal one. Out come the cameras, as the plane and occupants circle and descend for a closer look. It's a new small chip mill in what Murray and Davenport believe to be Sunbright.

"Every flight is an adventure in destruction," Davenport says. The fly-over survey project is a collaborative process involving several environmental groups and SouthWing, a charter plane service that has volunteered for the missions. It started with a donation from the Fund for Wild Nature out of Oregon and some from individual donors. They're now working on setting up a sophisticated camera mapping operation to chart the change in the forests over time. This trip turns up an extremely large area of new clear-cutting in Scott County and other points near the Tennessee line, some smoking with the fires of burning tree tops.

"Doug's the driving force," Davenport says. "We started this to try and monitor the clear-cutting and chip mill activity. We're trying to expand our flights to cover this clear-cutting binge."

After five straight hours of witnessing the massive loss of forest, the Cessna turns back south and lands once again at the Campbell County Airport, where Murray gets off. He moved to the scenic valley just south of the Cumberland Plateau a decade ago to live a simple, natural life and escape all the development in his native California. Now he finds himself in the position of activist to try and stop what he perceives to be the destruction of his adopted homeland. As he walks slowly with his head down toward his green Ford pickup, he thinks out loud about a book he read by a reporter who covered Champion and the Plum Creek Timber Company during 1980s in Montana. Last Stand by Richard Manning is billed as "a riveting exposé of environmental pillage and a lone journalist's struggle to keep the faith."

"The hangover is hitting them full-force right now in Montana. The binge is just beginning in earnest here," Murray says. "A lot of these companies are moving South not just because of the Spotted Owl controversy. They're running out of timber to cut in the Northwest. They ran into the Pacific Ocean. How long will it take Tennesseans to wake up to the havoc this party can wreak? I hope before it's too late."

For more information on chip mills and Tennessee forests, visit Glynn Wilson's homepage at