• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Southern Chip Mill Boom

Air Date: Week of

Efforts to protect the spotted owl and preserve old growth forests have sharply reduced timber cutting on public lands in the Pacific Northwest. But the world-wide demand for paper, particle board and other products made from wood chips is still soaring. So, to help meet this demand, the wood chipping business has shifted to the southeastern United States. This move is transforming the region's timber industry and attitudes towards it. James Jones reports from North Carolina.


CURWOOD: Efforts to protect the spotted owl and preserve old growth forests have sharply reduced timber cutting on public lands in the Pacific Northwest. But the worldwide demand for paper, particleboard, and other products made from wood chips is still soaring. So, to help meet this demand, the wood chipping business has shifted to the southeastern United States. This move is transforming the region's timber industry and attitudes toward it. James Jones reports.

(Construction engines)

JONES: Construction workers are putting the finishing touches on Willamette Industry's wood chipping mill at Union Mills in western North Carolina.

(Crunching metal sounds)

JONES: Company officials say it will grind up 300,000 tons of wood per year when it opens this spring. It's one of over 100 chip mills that have been built across the south in the last decade. When residents of Union Mills found out Willamette was coming to town, they tried to stop it.

FULTRACO: We just saw this little, tiny article in our local newspaper.

JONES: Lynn Fultraco of Union Mills is with the group Concerned Citizens of Rutherford County.

FULTRACO: About 6 or 10 of us decided that we needed to find out what this industry was all about, and how it was going to affect our community. And the more we found out about it, the less we liked about it.

JONES: The group worries the mill will destroy the beauty and the tranquility of their forested valley. So, Concerned Citizens of Rutherford County, a group without a single experienced activist among them, locked horns with an industry giant.

FULTRACO: Not only was it going to impact us locally, just within our immediate range area, it was going to impact people all over the state, particularly in western North Carolina, and then it just kind of started to spread to other parts of the state into other parts of the southeast region.

JONES: The activists lost the fight, but their battle reverberated far beyond Union Mills. A citizen's group in Stokes County, North Carolina, recently blocked a planned chip mill. Another group succeeded in denying Weyerhauser a permit to build a chipping facility in Arkansas. Until recently, this kind of environmental activism was rare in the south. It's grown with the chipping craze, which began in the late 80s and early 90s. Federal lands in the Northwest were getting locked up in lawsuits. Big paper and particleboard companies began expanding paper mills in the south, and chip mills sprang up to supply them.

(Mill sounds: motors, banging)

JONES: The Bristol Industries chip mill near Marion, North Carolina, is typical. Trees roll around in a huge drum, which strips the bark. The logs slide into the chipper and the machine spits out stamp-sized chips into a waiting rail car.

(Chips being discharged)

JONES: Analysts estimate that from the Carolinas to east Texas, chip mills now consume a million acres of southern woodlands each year. In 1985 there were 32 chip mills in the South; today, there are 140. And the newer, larger mills have a much bigger appetite for trees. That has locals worried about the future of southern forests. Danna Smith is with the Dogwood Alliance, a new coalition working on the issue.

SMITH: Our forests are being over-cut at the expense of our water quality, wildlife habitat, threatened and endangered species, and also our local economies. And if this level of cutting continues, our forests in the Southeast are going to be gone.

JONES: The timber companies typically replant clear-cut areas in fast-growing pine. But these single-species forests don't provide the rich animal habitat of a natural mixed forest. Activists also contend that the industry doesn't always use the best methods for protecting streams from soil runoff. But university foresters insist for now, the overall growth rate still exceeds timber cutting in the south. And Willamette's Shannon Buckley says the locals who oppose his mill exaggerate the risk to the forest.

BUCKLEY: If you look at the overall wood picture in this area, saw mills and everything else, the wood that they’ll take to log this mill will be about a 5% increase over current logging. So it's not a huge increase, and it's not a panic situation for these people. There's been a lot of things blown out of proportion.

JONES: Mr. Buckley says Willamette built at Union Mills precisely because timber growth in the area, particularly growth in hardwoods, is exceeding harvest. But a number of practices make chipping different from the traditional timber business of the region.

(Loud highway sounds)

JONES: Industry officials say loggers deliver trees to chip mills from up to 100 miles away. The mills feed on younger trees, and usually they leave bare and clear-cut areas in their wake. These practices have shocked a lot of small-town Southerners who are accustomed to saw mills that draw mostly on local timber. Harvard Ayres, Chairman of the group Appalachian Voices, says Southerners never had a problem with that kind of operation.

AYRES: And those saw mills have been around there forever. But except for that frenzy of cutting, which occurred in the early part of this century, they've managed to live in balance, pretty much, with what's growing there, and managed to maintain a reasonable level of habitat protection for critters. And now, with these new voracious appetite chip mills coming along, they cannot exist on just a little bit. They can't eat just one.

(Mill cutting sounds)

JONES: Even owners of saw mills, like this one cutting hardwood timber into boards, are joining environmental activists in questioning the wisdom of chipping southern woodlands. Mark Barford is with the industry group The Appalachian Hardwood Council.

BARFORD: The obvious harvesting of trees before they grow to a large size is obviously directly incompatible with what we want. We want to see a forest grow to maturity.

JONES: Mr. Barford says small saw mills and furniture makers thrive on large, older trees that are selectively cut, a method that is more likely to protect watersheds and animal habitat and preserve the beauty of southern Appalachia. He says his industry and activists face a serious challenge. Ninety percent of forest land in the South is private, and when it comes to logging on those lands activists can't appeal to regulators or the courts. The only real hope, Mr. Barford says, is a campaign to discourage land owners from selling to chippers for quick cash.

BARFORD: So, it's a real easy equation to put down to a landowner and say yeah, you can get x-amount now, but you can get so much more by growing that to a more mature forest. And the beauty of that, of course, from the standpoint, and this is where we agree so much with our environmentalist friends, is that along the way you're also adding a forest, an environment.

JONES: It's an argument activists say could work in the south. Almost 1 in 5 people living in the Southeast today weren't there 15 years ago. Many came for jobs, but a lot of others came for the beauty of the Southern woodlands. A recent survey showed that a majority of land owners now favor animal habitat and aesthetics over logging as the most important values of their forests. That sentiment may not be slowing down timber sales, but the furor that started in Union Mills has been heard at the state capitol. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Protection plans to study the chipping industry. Deputy Director Henry Lancaster.

LANCASTER: We've decided that we need to take a look at it and make a determination: if there is going to be a growth trend in this facilities, then we need to understand them better so that if there is a need for us to play a stronger regulatory role, we can do that more responsibly.

JONES: The North Carolina study will gauge the impact of this industry on the forests, waterways, roads, and local economies. And North Carolina isn't alone. Missouri officials have proposed a new clean water permit that will require tougher review of chip mills. One US EPA regional office temporarily stopped a permit for a mill, citing the impact of clear-cuts. And newspaper editorials across the South have urged state and federal officials to make sure chip mills don't spread further without careful study. Despite this new scrutiny, timber companies continue to build the mills. But now they know a lot of people are watching. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Union Mills, North Carolina.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth