o early this past September I took off from Knoxville in a Cessna 182 piloted by Hume Davenport, the founder of a nonprofit, conservation-minded aviation service called SouthWings. Hume, whose ancestors came to the Cumberlands in l801, has provided his "flying classroom" to dozens of journalists, environmentalists, and policymakers trying to grasp the enormity of what is happening on the plateau.
The Cumberlands (some dispense with the s) are made up of the Cumberland Plateau and the mountains and foothills on its edges. The plateau itself is a 400-mile-long tableland that is the tail end of the Appalachian Plateau; it extends from West Virginia and Virginia down into Kentucky and Tennessee on a southwesterly diagonal and peters out in Alabama. The part in Tennessee tapers from 55 miles wide to about 38 and covers 6,875 square miles -- an area larger than the state of Connecticut. About 85 percent of it is still covered with the native woodland. Some of the last remaining large stands of the Appalachian mixed mesophytic forest (where a variety of hardwoods grow in moderately moist conditions) are here, but the plateau was "pretty much raked over the coals a century ago," Hume explained, and most of the trees are second growth. East of the plateau, plunging a thousand feet in a steep escarpment that was a formidable barrier for the westering pioneers until Daniel Boone forged a route through the Cumberland Gap in l769, is the Great Valley of East Tennessee, where Knoxville and Chattanooga are and where the Tennessee River winds.
Soon we were over the Cumberland Mountains, whose peaks range from 2,000 to 4,000 feet. Hume's aeronautical map indicated "numerous strip mines," and we could see that some of the mountains had been cored like apples. Others had been decapitated, or "cross-ridge mined" in the industry's euphemism. The heyday of the mining was between l920 and l970, and its scars are mostly overgrown with vegetation. But mining is making a comeback. We circled Zeb Mountain, which the Robert Clear Coal Corporation had just gotten a permit to cross-ridge mine. Roads and sediment ponds had been put in on its slopes, and the trees had been clearcut, like a person who'd been shaved before an operation. Mud was oozing down into a stream below, smothering the habitat of a striking little fish called the blackside dace, which is found in only 30 streams on earth.
"Mining and clearcutting go hand in hand," Hume explained.
In nearby Pioneer, we made a few passes over the Royal Blue chip mill, owned by International Paper, the biggest paper company in the world. A chip mill is a satellite facility, where hardwoods of smaller diameter and plantation pines are diced into wafers that are taken to a mother mill, to be dissolved into pulp. The larger hardwoods are sawed into boards at another mill.
There are 156 chip mills and 103 pulp mills in the 13 southern states. More than a hundred of the chip mills were constructed between l987 and l997, when chip exports (mostly to Japan) escalated by 500 percent. Eleven mills get their wood from the plateau. Royal Blue alone eats up 7,000 acres of hardwood trees a year -- oaks, tulip poplars, and half a dozen other species -- from within a 75-mile radius. We could see two miniature logging trucks coming down the highway far below us, another being unloaded, and four waiting behind it. A huge claw suspended from a crane picked up the logs and fed them into the chipper, which spewed the chips out a pipe directly onto railroad cars that would take them to the Blue Ridge Paper Company's Pigeon River mill in Canton, North Carolina. Most of the wood here is "gatewood": Few, if any, questions are asked about where the timber comes from or the manner in which it was harvested.