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Photo of activist Doug Murray
The Tennessee Tree Massacre

by Alex Shoumatoff

The paper industry is destroying one of America's last great stands of native forest to bring you fresh shopping bags and toilet paper.


If there were an international tribunal that prosecuted crimes against the planet, like the one in The Hague that deals with crimes against humanity, what is happening on the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Tennessee would undoubtedly be indictable.

Text boxThe crime -- one of many clandestine ecocides American corporations are committing around the world -- has taken place over three decades. About 200,000 acres on this tableland have already been clear-cut by the paper industry, and the cutting continues. Where once grew some of the most biologically rich hardwood forest in North America's Temperate Zone (which extends from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada), there are now row after row of fast-growing loblolly pine trees genetically engineered to yield the most pulp in the shortest time. But the paper industry's insatiable appetite for timber has met with unexpected competition from an equally voracious insect. In the last four years, an estimated 50 to 70 percent of the pines planted on the plateau have been devoured by the southern pine beetle. The entire South has been ravaged by the worst outbreak in its history of this native predator of pine trees, caused by the tremendous increase in the amount of pine available for it to eat on the industry plantations that have replaced the native forest. Unable to salvage its dead timber, the paper industry has been losing hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet it seems still committed to destroying what remains of the extraordinarily lush forest on the Cumberland Plateau, which, along with eastern Tennessee's Great Valley and the Cumberland Mountains, has the highest concentration of endangered species in North America. The loss of biodiversity is tragic but also absurd economically; it doesn't even make good business sense.

Aerial view of a clearcutNot many people are aware of what is taking place. Nearly 90 percent of the Cumberland Plateau is in private hands and exempt from all but a few government regulations. The federal and state agencies that are supposed to be regulating the paper, timber, and mining industries have come to view these industries as clients whose permits and projects should be facilitated rather than scrutinized. The cozy relationship that exists between Tennessee's public and private sectors, and the impunity and magnitude of the environmental destruction taking place on the plateau, are what you might expect in Guatemala or deep in the Brazilian Amazon, not in our republic, where there are supposed to be laws that protect our wilderness treasures and prosecute conflicts of interest. But a quarter of the world's paper and 60 percent of America's wood products are being produced in the South, and the will to address the abuses of the paper industry, which contributes millions of dollars to the campaign coffers of politicians around the country, just isn't there -- certainly not in Tennessee.

There's another reason for the lack of public awareness: Much of the devastation is hidden from view by thin "beauty strips" of native forest left along the plateau's highways. The only way to get the full picture is to go up in a small plane and see it from the air.

Click to view

Species on the Cumberland Are Facing New Threats

The Cumberland has the highest number of endemic species anywhere in North America. Some animals, above, are already rare (the cougar) or endangered; the red wolf is locally extinct due to overhunting. The pine plantations that replace forests after they're clearcut -- "environmental disaster zones," says plant ecologist David Haskell -- will only make it worse.

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More articles by Alex Shoumatoff, a former staff writer at The New Yorker and contributing editor at Vanity Fair, can be found on his web site,, which is dedicated largely to raising environmental awareness.

Photos: top, Peter Essick; bottom, Cameron Davidson

OnEarth. Winter 2004
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council