False Forests

What's green, full of trees, and worse than a clearcut? Vast pine farms, which are rapidly replacing the woods with a new kind of Southern plantation.

Under a low winter sun muted by the leading edge of an ice storm sailing in from Oklahoma, I trudge up Moore Hill above the old Shottsville, Alabama, cemetery and gaze out over the new plantations of the South. The crop: loblolly pine, native to the moist piedmont between highlands and sea and pretty much a stranger to these hills. But these aren't just any loblollies. They are cloned "supertrees," selected for swiftness of growth, straightness of trunk, and resistance to drought, disease, and insects. The overseer of all the plantations in view: Champion International, one of dozens of forest-products outfits frantically buying or leasing woodlands across the South. Before planting their superseedlings, the companies clearcut and bulldoze the site to get rid of all native trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, mosses, fungi, grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. Woody debris is burned off. Then they plant loblolly. As the pines mature, they are thinned and pruned. Native trees that return from roots or seeds are cut or killed with herbicides. Frequently the plantation is bombed with fertilizer pellets. Then, 15 to 20 years after they were planted, the pines are clearcut, and the process begins anew.

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Since mechanized forest removal became de rigueur in the 1960s, the industry has been excusing itself with ads that begin: "Clearcuts may seem ugly at first...." As I gain the brow of the hill, I have to agree. But here, on this frozen, snag-littered mud flow salted with land snails roasted white, there is something even uglier -- a greener, more insidious threat to the environment apparent in the freshly planted pine seedlings that barely make it to my boot tops. Directly to my left, a rectangular plantation almost ready for harvest stretches to the next hollow like a roll of teased Astroturf. The plantation to my right is maybe two years old and just greening up. For miles in all directions, the earth is clad in genetically identical, genetically "superior" specimens of loblolly jammed into the dirt in straight rows -- trees the timber industry calls "vigorous" and "thrifty," all goose-stepping their way to harvestable diameter.

There is no genuine forest in sight, save a relict scrap to the north that contains hardwoods: oak, beech, dogwood, ash, sweet gum, magnolia, yellow poplar, hickory, cherry, and maple. It is a reservoir for wildlife, but also for what companies like Champion seek to correct -- "deadwood, decadence, and disorder." With a pine plantation, the forest has not only been removed, it has been prevented. Countless species of insects, arachnids, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals -- each as much a part of a forest as a tree -- are gone because the diverse vegetation on which they depend is gone. E.O. Wilson, a Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner, estimates that a pine plantation contains 90 to 95 percent fewer species than the forest that preceded it. He compares the effects of tree farms on biological diversity to "building a line of Wal-Marts."

Over the past decade, tree farms have certainly proliferated like discount chains. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that plantations now make up 36 percent of all pine stands in the South and within 20 years will make up 70 percent. Like other industries, pine farming has migrated to the region for its mild climate, cheap labor, and low taxes. Trees grow more quickly here, and they cost less to plant, tend, and harvest. What's more, most of the pine conversion is taking place on private land, where regulation is virtually nonexistent. More than half of evergreens harvested in the U.S. come from the South, making it the world's largest pulpwood producer.

Before visiting Moore Hill, I spent an afternoon flying over northern Alabama in a light plane, inspecting endless pine plantations. Some cover more than 1,000 acres, almost merging with others of the same size -- squares, strips, and rectangles of sickly green draped across the dark forest. By the year 2030, according to government projections, more than two-thirds of all forests in the state will be replaced by loblolly pine planted in orderly rows. People who don't work for the forest-products industry call the process "conversion." The industry calls it "reforestation." What it really is is factory farming.

One of the reasons there are no meaningful controls on pine conversion is that forest-products companies have pretty well convinced the media and the public that "replanting" a forest once it has been removed is not only possible but admirable. Weyerhaeuser, which according to Business Week does "better than Mother Nature," boasts that it "promptly replants" its clearcuts with "vigorous, young seedlings." The company reports that in 1998 it planted more than 51 million seedlings in its U.S. "forests." Georgia-Pacific, which manages 4 million acres in the South, plants 125 million seedlings each year and proudly proclaims that its "forest is a factory."

What the companies neglect to mention is that pine farming, like other large-scale, industrial agriculture, harms the environment and the economy. Pine plantations require enormous amounts of fertilizer and herbicide, much of which winds up in streams and drinking water. They impoverish soil and destroy habitat, including wetlands. And they rob communities of valuable sawtimber for lumber and of real forests that produce clean water and provide recreation. Few of the profits end up in local communities, and many of the companies are multinational. Champion, for example, is owned by a firm based in Helsinki.

This is the second time the forest-products industry has marched like Sherman through the South. Having grazed off the timber supply in the early 1900s, the industry migrated to the Midwest, consumed that supply, then moved to the Pacific Northwest. By the mid-1980s -- with that region's old-growth rainforests fast dwindling -- the industry returned to the South, where native forests had recovered from its previous visit. With much of the second-growth hardwood of poor quality, forest removal and site preparation for pine planting had been prohibitively expensive. But the Army Corps of Engineers' newly completed Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, connecting the rivers of the same names, offered a cheap way to transport wood fiber. Now even the stunted, twisted, genetically inferior stuff left by generations of loggers could be run through mills that grind them into chips, loaded on barges, whisked to the Gulf of Mexico, and shipped to Japan to be turned into fax and copy paper.

Today there are 156 chip mills in the South -- 110 of them less than 10 years old. Some can grind up to 3,000 acres of woods per year, clearing the way for vast tree farms. Between 1989 and 1995, exports of Southern hardwood chips grew 500 percent.

Tom Bourland, a forestry-wildlife consultant who once worked for International Paper, defends pine conversion. "If you just want that go-back-to-nature bullshit and you don't really know what you're talking about, you can get a wide audience," he says. "But it doesn't make any sense. If you don't want industrial forestry on the landscape, what do you want? Forestry is our No. 1 agricultural crop in Louisiana. There are all the jobs and the taxes that come from that, and you get all the environmental amenities. So what is your argument?"

The argument is that pine conversion squanders real wealth. Ed Whitelaw, the University of Oregon economics professor who provided key testimony in the spotted-owl hearings and had to be assigned bodyguards as a result, puts it this way: "Let's say you're the CEO of one of these forest-products firms. Well, for you the long run is 8 or 10 years. No big deal. The long run for a politician is next November. Is pine conversion economically wise in the long run -- the real long run? I think the answer is unequivocally no. The companies have to cover the externalities -- that is, the costs they impose on others -- and all the subsidies. If they do, then fine. But they aren't even coming close."

One of the subsidies that Whitelaw is talking about is the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which is now used primarily to transport wood chips. It cost taxpayers $2 billion to build, and costs another $2 million annually to dredge. In addition, the pulp and paper mills that facilitate pine conversion re- ceive tax-free construction loans and millions of dollars' worth of tax credits.

Alabama is particularly generous to pine converters. Among the benefits bestowed by the state is a tax exemption on almost $4 billion worth of timberland -- an arrangement that, together with other tax breaks, deprives public schools of an estimated $50 million per year. So pine conversion is being underwritten in part by the future enlightenment and earning potential of Alabama's children. An Auburn University study reveals that rural counties most dependent on the forest-products industry have the highest levels of unemployment, poverty, and infant mortality. They also spend $200 less per student for public education than rural counties less reliant on timber. Tax revenue that would have gone to schools and other social services goes instead for such industry accommodations as road maintenance for fleets of logging trucks.

Another hidden cost of pine conversion is that young hardwood trees are ground into chips before they have a chance to mature into valuable sawtimber. Unlike Western logging, which is often conducted on public land, pine conversion happens mostly on private property where regulations are lax or nonexistent. Foresters for companies like Champion routinely pass out free seedlings and free advice to landowners, encouraging them to sell their timber before it matures and to "reforest" with loblolly. The landowner gets quick cash, the company gets wood for chips, and workers at local sawmills get laid off. Lamar Marshall, director of Wild Alabama, one of the state's largest and most active environmental groups, showed me the results of this system as we toured the countryside in his truck. "Look there," he exclaimed as we passed someone's back 40, a once-diverse woodlot replaced by a monotonous expanse of young pine. "If the forester isn't real ethical, he'll cut every stick of hardwood for chips. He'll pay $5 for a red oak, which might have been worth $50 or $75 in five years." All trees look the same by the time a Japanese fax machine spits them into the holding tray.

In a forest, though, each species of tree has a unique function, contributing different nutrients to soil and water and providing food, shade, and shelter for different wildlife. Jonathan Evans, who teaches biology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, says the industry needs to quit pushing the fantasy that replacing all these trees with loblolly is "reforestation." "Corn is a species of grass," he remarks. "Yet Midwestern farmers don't go around pretending they're restoring the tallgrass prairie."

Farmers know what happens to soil used to grow successive crops of grain or vegetables. What happens to soil used to grow successive crops of pine? I put the question to David Van Lear, a forestry professor at Clemson University. Industrial foresters, he explains, don't know, because they haven't been doing it long enough. But he thinks someone should find out. "Most of the nutrients are in the topsoil that is sometimes bulldozed away with the debris," he says. "There have been studies documenting the detrimental effects of that. If your cutting rotations get shorter and shorter and you're taking more and more off the land, then you're likely to run into nutrient deficiencies. That is something we cannot tolerate as managers because then the resource isn't renewable; you're mining it." Van Lear questions whether chemical fertilizers can cure the soil depletion caused by pine plantations.

As with other forms of factory farming, fertilizers incur costs of their own -- to the companies that use them and to the fish, wildlife, and people whose habitat they pollute. Last fall residents of Sequatchie County on the Cumberland Plateau in southeastern Tennessee complained that they'd been bombed by urea pellets intended for a Bowater pine plantation. "You could hear them hit our roof and splash in our pond," says Beverly Hicks. "They hit us and our animals. My husband and I got terrible headaches and sore throats. My sister had blisters inside her nose."

Hicks is among 27 residents who convinced a judge to issue a temporary restraining order and who joined in a lawsuit against Bowater and the applicator, Aerotek. According to the Chattanooga Times & Free Press, citizens and county officials "ran into a stone wall." Bowater refused to comment on the spraying, and the state said that there are "no regulations regarding application of fertilizer."

While there are regulations for application of the herbicides used by pine converters to prevent the return of native plants, there is scant information on the long-term effects on fish, wildlife, and humans. One of the most commonly used of these poisons is Garlon, which can remain in the soil for two years and easily washes into streams, lakes, and ponds. Although it kills unwanted plants, Garlon is highly toxic to the microbes that help pine trees grow, and in laboratory tests on rats, it increased rates of cancer and birth defects.

Wetlands -- which help purify groundwater from fertilizers, herbicides, and other contaminants -- are also being destroyed by pine plantations. Because they are heavily forested, wetlands pay for their own destruction: The industry finances their draining and site preparation by selling their timber to chip mills. A Duke University study found that pine conversion was responsible for more than half of all wetland losses in the coastal plain of North Carolina. Statewide, nearly two million acres of wetlands have been converted to pine. According to the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center, 91 percent of all destruction and damage to freshwater forested wetlands has occurred in the 13 Southern states.

The pace at which wet and dry forests are being converted to loblolly plantations has recently been documented by Jonathan Evans of the University of the South, who calls conversion "a vast experiment with no control." When he and his colleagues studied aerial photographs of a single county in the deciduous forest cloaking Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau, they found that 13,144 acres had been cleared for pine plantations between 1981 and 1998. Net loss in the county's hardwood habitat: 12 percent.

"No one knows what's going to come back on these vast acreages," says Evans. "There is no place in the United States where anyone has successfully restored a hardwood forest in upland conditions like this. The coal industry came and went; that's why we have a lot of the problems we do. Well, here's another industry coming and going. It's not in this for the long haul, but the people who live here are. What's going to be left for them when these companies go to Malaysia or wherever?"

Not all pine conversion takes place on private land. The Forest Service has gotten into the business, albeit in a more casual way. "The service is doing better," Lamar Marshall tells me as we orbit in Chip Vercelli's Piper Arrow over the Bankhead National Forest in northern Alabama. There has been no clearcutting or pine conversion on this forest for the last three years. Vercelli is an attorney for WildLaw, a nonprofit law firm that does pro bono work for more than 80 environmental groups; one reason the Forest Service is doing better on the Bank- head is that WildLaw, on behalf of Marshall's Wild Alabama, sued it every time it got ready to remove a tract of woods and cluster bomb the earth with loblolly.

Similar rehabilitation of national forests -- and the people who manage them -- is under way all across the South. In the last two years, a coalition led by Georgia Forest Watch has shut down clearcutting and pine conversion on the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests. Thanks to citizen activists and an agencywide tilt toward resource stewardship initiated by Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck, new plans for these and other Southern national forests recognize past mistakes and call for the conversion of loblolly plantations back to native stands.

The pine plantations in the Bankhead forest differ from the private ones I'd inspected in that they have been less intensively managed. Timber companies might even call them "slovenly." Clearly, "deadwood, decadence, and disorder" are creeping in. The tops of some of the pines have turned brown because they've been invaded by Southern pine beetles, the boll weevil of the new plantations. Presented with a vast, unbroken smorgasbord of cotton, the real boll weevil had helped ruin most of the South's traditional plantations by the 1920s, thereby encouraging the return of native forests. Will the pine beetle -- part of those native forests -- do the same?

No one can say, but the beetle is currently undergoing an unprecedented population explosion. Because these insects look for stressed trees, the timber industry insists that they pose little threat to pine plantations. But Tom Bourland, the forestry-wildlife consultant, inadvertently acknowledges that tree farms have been hard hit. He blames the "back-to-nature types" that run the National Park Service for failing to control beetles 17 years ago in the Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, allowing them to overwhelm their predators. "They moved on the prevailing winds northeast through prime forestlands in Louisiana and Mississippi," Bourland says. "It was an incredible outbreak. You can't get over a pine plantation in an aircraft today and not see evidence of that epidemic."

Because pine beetles can't be controlled by pesticides, they are providing plenty of employment for independent loggers like Donnie Williams. Among his fellow professionals, Williams is downright aberrant in that he thinks in terms of ecosystems; Marshall calls him "an environmental logger." Because of his reputation, the Forest Service has hired Williams to selectively excise the moribund, beetle-infested loblollies it planted 35 years earlier.

I meet Williams at his salvage operation deep in the Bankhead. His quarter-million-dollar harvester-processor cuts the dying pines without even nicking the hardwood saplings interspersed among them, lays them horizontal, strips their branches, and slices them into identical lengths. As the logs hit the earth scraps of bark fall off, each perforated with tiny holes made by the emerging adult beetles and inscribed on the inside with tangled trails left by the larvae as they devoured the living cambium.

I ask Williams why he isn't cutting down the dead trees that have no bark. "That's where the checkered beetle lives," Williams explains. "He goes over to the live tree, waits on the bark, and eats the pine beetle when he comes out." So the "deadwood, decadence, and disorder" that timber companies cut, scrape, and poison from the earth have a function after all.

Checkered beetles aren't the only forest creatures that feast on pine beetles. Many species of woodpeckers do, too, but because the birds need dead and moribund trees in which to forage and excavate their nests, they can't live in the carefully tended trees of a pine farm. Another natural control of pine beetles -- parasitic wasps that lay their eggs on them -- need the nectar of wildflowers for nourishment, but pine converters eliminate wildflowers, along with all the other seemingly useless flora. Nor can pine farms sustain the fox squirrels that bury puffballs which, in turn, inoculate the roots of native longleaf pines with nitrogen-fixing nodules, thereby facilitating better growth and better production of the cones the squirrels eat.

Shottsville is named for the Shotts family. Dozens of gravestones in the cemetery bear the name. Some of the Shottses buried here fought for the Confederacy with the Bull Mountain Volunteers. Others gave land for the adjacent single-room church. Lee Shotts, 68, his five children, and the older of his 14 grandchildren drive all the way from Roseville, Michigan, to fish for bass in the family pond. Once he caught a six- pounder.

The pond nestles in a wooded hollow at the base of Moore Hill, a four-minute walk up Bull Mountain Creek from County Road 13. It is here that I encounter some of the "externalities" Ed Whitelaw has been telling me about. With the first big rain of the year, a torrent of mud, silt, and debris had swept down the feeder stream from Champion's 100-acre clear- cut. The pond had always been transparent. Now it is Mississippi brown and crusted over with a scum of dirt, ashes, and sawdust.

Nutrients that have accumulated for centuries in forest soil are lost not just to planted pines; they flow with mud into ponds and streams each time pine converters remove all the soil-anchoring vegetation. Then, when the site has recovered from that erosion, the fast-growing pines are clearcut and erosion begins anew.

Stepping over and through deltas of silt and mud, I follow the feeder stream up Moore Hill for several hundred yards until it goes dry. After Lee Shotts had complained to Champion, it hired a contractor to set up rows of hay bales, backed on the upstream side with black plastic. The mud that has flowed and hardened above some of these barriers is 18 inches higher than the mud below. In its upper reaches the stream and its banks are bare as the baseline from home plate to first base. Champion has burned and bulldozed everything, and it is all perfectly legal because forestry regulations on private land in Alabama, as in most of the South, are voluntary.

"You wouldn't want to eat a fish out of that pond now; they've ruined it," declares Lee Shotts, who is suing Champion for damages. His attorney, WildLaw director Ray Vaughan, says the firm hopes to accomplish three things with the lawsuit: compensate the Shotts family, punish Champion, and deter timber companies from clearcutting in ways that damage their neighbors. "They are logging without regard to their responsibilities to the people around them," Vaughan says as we hike around the pond. "It can be done better. No government agency will hold them accountable, so we're going to try."

Where the cart path to Shotts' pond joins the county road, a flock of perhaps half a dozen eastern bluebirds flashes over our heads. Bluebirds, which nest in holes excavated by woodpeckers in dead and diseased trees, can't exist in pine plantations. How many bluebirds, woodpeckers, and bass, I wonder, does a 100-acre pine plantation cost? And would the public authorize such purchases if it knew about them? At least the Shotts family is going to have something to say about it.

Now the sky is beech-bark gray, and fingers of the approaching storm are reach- ing into bare hardwoods along the un- converted creek banks. From the dark valley all around us, branches of Alabama's old, native woodlands rattle like the drums of the Bull Mountain Volunteers.