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The Tennessee Tree Massacre
Page 3

Photo of Cielo SandWe banked southwest and, heading right down the middle of the plateau, began to see massive devastation. "This isn't Ma-and-Pa, let's-clear-40-acres stuff," Hume yelled through the headphones. "It's big, industrial tree farming. When they took out the big trees a century ago, at least they left the little ones to take their place. But now they're scraping off the soil, right down to the bedrock. Because it's thin and sandy, they have to spray massive amounts of fertilizer from crop dusters so the pine trees can grow. It's complete insanity. Most of the trees they're planting are being chewed up by beetles. Look at these plantations. It's a graveyard."

Below us, vast stands of dead gray loblolly pine, covering hundreds of acres, had been skeletonized by the southern pine beetle, Dendroctonus frontalis. The beetle breaks out every 10 to 30 years -- what triggers the outbreak is not understood -- and attacks native longleaf, shortleaf, Virginia, black, yellow, Table Mountain, and white pines that are sparsely scattered in the hardwood forest. But with many tens of thousands of acres of monoculture pine on the plateau, the beetles have been having a field day. The beetles are even chewing up saplings and the prize conifers in people's yards. In a race against the plague, the paper companies are forced to harvest their timber before it is mature, creating a glut of scrawny "bugwood" on the market. This has severely depressed the price of pulp. Couple this with the hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue from the timber the beetles have beaten them to, and competition from Canada's timber, and it' clear why the South's paper companies are in trouble.

The biggest landowner on the southern plateau is Bowater, the biggest manufacturer of newsprint in the country and one of the largest producers of the free-sheet coated paper used for glossy magazines and catalogs. Now, as we flew south over Crossville, the commercial hub of the southern plateau and a burgeoning retirement community, houses abruptly gave way to Bowater's industrial tree farms and huge squares of mangled wasteland that had been hacked out of the forest and not yet replanted. "This plateau has been ransacked," Hume said sadly. He took us over a particularly vast mutilated swath that some activists have dubbed the Triangle of Destruction, but it is only one of many.

The only clearcutting I had seen on this scale was in the Amazon 25 years ago. Every merchantable stick below us had been taken, streambeds and banks had been torn up and gouged by recklessly driven machines, and the understory shrubs and stripped-off branches and other debris had been bulldozed into windrows, some of which had been torched and were shooting up sooty flames. "It used to be just Bowater," Hume said, "but in the last few years International Paper and J.M. Huber -- a wood products company -- have gotten into the act. When Huber showed up in '97, we saw a vast increase, maybe a doubling, of the clearcutting." Four million additional acres of the South's forests are being converted to pine plantations each year, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and the conversion rate is expected to double by 2040.

On the plateau, this translates to an annual holocaust of about 3 million trees, 14 million if you count smaller trees and pines. What's driving this? Consider that a quarter of the world's paper is produced in the South. The average American consumes about half a ton a year -- that's factoring in toddlers and oldsters and people on life support. This is 111 times the per capita consumption in India, 300 times that of some African countries. Much of this consists of glossy catalogs and other junk mail, which I get a two-foot stack of each week; the sections of the paper that I chuck without even glancing at them (the Washington Post and other newspapers are printed on Bowater paper taken straight from the plateau); the inch-high stack of napkins we're handed whenever we get takeout; the 10 feet of toilet paper we rip off to clean ourselves. As one environmentalist put it arrestingly: "We're wiping our asses with habitat."

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Photo: Peter Essick

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