Canton mill closure may challenge sustainable forestry

HEALING CUTS: Tuckaseegee landowner Mark Yeager was able to sell the white pine on his property as pulpwood for the Canton paper mill, helping underwrite the cost of planting native hardwoods on the property. Photo by Andrew Danner

Mark Yeager had a plan. He’d recently inherited about 14 acres from his father in Tuckaseegee, part of a larger parcel his family had been camping on for over 50 years. The land was covered with scrubby white pine, and Yeager wanted to transform it into a native hardwood forest. But that would involve cutting down a lot of trees, most of which had little value as timber.

Yeager was willing, but at age 61, he also recognized his limitations.

“If I was 30 years old and had all my crazy buddies that didn’t know any better, we’d go out there with chain saws and take care of it ourselves,” he says with a laugh. “Luckily, I’m married to a woman who goes, ‘No, Mark, you can’t do that.’ … I’m kind of accident prone, so it probably wouldn’t have ended well for me.”

With the help of EcoForesters, an Asheville-based nonprofit, Yeager found a way to have someone else do the work and make some money. In December, a logger was able to harvest the pine, turn it into wood chips and sell it as pulpwood for the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill in Canton. By February, Yeager had finished replacing those trees with seedlings of oak and walnut — his father’s favorite tree — that he hopes will grow into a more resilient forest providing much better wildlife habitat.

If Yeager had waited a year to carry out the project, however, he’d have been out of luck. In March, Pactiv Evergreen announced plans to shutter the long-running Canton facility by the end of June. Citing “a challenging market environment for our beverage merchandising business,” the company said closing a plant that had been in operation since 1908 would save tens of millions of dollars in capital and operating costs.

The closure will have major repercussions for the local economy. Roughly 1,100 workers at the Canton plant and a satellite facility in Waynesville are expected to lose their jobs, potentially increasing Haywood County’s unemployment rate by over 4 percentage points. But in addition to those human impacts, the loss of the mill will also harm sustainable forestry in Western North Carolina, says EcoForesters Co-Director Andy Tait. The Canton facility, Tait explains, was WNC’s last remaining end user of pulpwood. Without that market, loggers have little incentive to harvest small, poorly formed trees that can’t be turned into timber.

Instead, they’ll feel more pressure to “high-grade,” taking only the biggest and most valuable specimens. That practice, he says, leaves behind forests that are less diverse, worse for wildlife and more susceptible to fire.

“The ecology and economics of forestry were always coming up at odds,” notes Tait. “Now, they’ve kind of just crashed together.”

Pulp facts

The pending closure represents the culmination of a trend that’s been decades in the making, says Tait. In the 1980s, dozens of paper producers and the wood chip mills that supplied them operated throughout the Southern Appalachians, attracted by cheap land and labor. But as costs increased, those businesses gradually closed. And with the Canton mill gone, the closest facility that makes paper from pulpwood (rather than recycled cardboard) is now over 200 miles away.

Even during the industry’s heyday, selling pulpwood was a marginal proposition at best, Tait explains. After factoring in the costs of logging and transporting the trees to a chip mill, landowners could expect to realize a profit of only about $1-$5 per ton, compared with $25 or more per ton for quality saw timber.

Some landowners would let loggers cut pulpwood gratis in an effort to develop more productive forests over the long run, he continues. Add in the fuel costs to ship pulpwood outside the region, however, and no one can make money even if the raw material is free.

In anticipation of the planned closure, notes Tait, the two local chip mills that supplied it, Suncrest LLC in Waynesville and Parton Lumber Co. in Rutherfordton, are no longer buying pulpwood. He says Suncrest expects to shut down entirely once the plant ceases operation, while Parton is searching for customers farther east but hasn’t yet lined up any. Neither company responded to requests for comment.

It’s hard to quantify how much the Canton mill’s closure will curtail the demand for WNC pulpwood. Although Xpress reached out to multiple Pactiv Evergreen representatives in the company’s wood purchasing and communications departments, none responded to requests for comment.

Tom Tveidt, president of Waynesville-based consultancy Syneva Economics, is conducting an economic impact analysis of the Canton closure but says it’s too early to share results. A March 9 report by WLOS quoted Russ Harris, executive director of the Southwestern Commission Council of Governments, as saying the plant sourced “$150 million in chips annually from a 200-mile radius.”

Unhealthy harvests

Pulpwood has little value ecologically as well. In the forest, says Tait, these trees behave like weeds, crowding out oaks and other keystone species that provide food and habitat for wildlife.

The small-diameter, highly branching structure of many pulpwood trees also puts forests at greater risk of out-of-control fires. In a healthy forest, Tait explains, fires generally just clear out undergrowth and unhealthy trees, with big trees surviving thanks to their large, straight trunks and thick bark.

But in a forest that’s overgrown with weedy pulpwood, those trees can serve as kindling. “The problem with forest fires is the small trees catch fire and then can lead to the bigger trees catching fire,” says Tait. “The little trees around are too dense and thick and haven’t been thinned out.”

Rising temperatures and more severe droughts associated with climate change are predicted to increase WNC’s wildfire risk, and Tait says cutting small, low-quality trees can help make forests more resilient. Yet in a post-Pactiv Evergreen landscape, this will just be another short-term cost for landowners.

Those who are still interested in improving their forests even without market incentives may be eligible for some government subsidies. The N.C. Forest Service’s Forest Development Program offers cost sharing for “the creation of the benefits associated with active forest management” on up to 100 acres annually, with a $10,000 cap per landowner. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service runs a similar initiative called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

But neither of those is an adequate substitute for a regional pulpwood buyer, argues Tait. The N.C. Forest Service’s resources are limited — just $250,000 has been allocated for forest development projects across all of WNC in the coming fiscal year — and the service is struggling with the same staffing shortages that plague other branches of state government. Tait adds that a complicated application process discourages many people from participating in the USDA program.

For the trees

At least one local landowner has managed to benefit from federal support for forest improvement. Since moving to Yancey County from Alaska in 1996, Russell Oates has worked to restore native hardwoods across more than 200 acres he and his wife, Stacy, own between Pensacola and Burnsville.

Oates says it’s highly labor-intensive work: He’s hired crews to cut down fast-growing species like poplars, birches and maples; plant 1,500 seedlings of more desirable species like oak and hickory; and protect the young trees using metal cages he designed. So far, he’s spent roughly $40,000 on 8 acres, with the USDA program covering about half the cost.

A retired biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Oates feels called to make his forest more ecologically valuable, despite the considerable expense. He points out that hardwoods provide habitat for hundreds of insect species, which in turn makes them critical stopovers for migratory birds. “The trees are like fast-food joints for the birds, only the food is the best it could be and not the worst it could be,” he quips.

Meanwhile, Oates says he hasn’t sold any timber or pulpwood, aiming to avoid the potential disturbance caused by logging machinery. But as Yeager, the Tuckaseegee landowner, points out, not everyone who wants to improve their land has the financial resources to do so. He believes the loss of the Canton mill will make forest restoration work less likely across WNC.

“Folks like me who aren’t tree huggers, who are just trying to do a little bit to make it better down the line — that opportunity is not as easily met anymore because the options will require out-of-pocket expense,” says Yeager. “That would kill the motivation for somebody to do something like what I did.”

Editor’s note: This article’s photo credit was updated on May 17, 2023.


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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4 thoughts on “Canton mill closure may challenge sustainable forestry

  1. Voirdire

    When the latest forest “plan” for the Pisgah and Nantahala forests is implemented… with its 100% increase in logging from the previous 10 year plan… our mature oak hardwood forests will be targeted for their valuable lumber. Once they’re “harvested” ..what comes back is a dense weedy poplar dominated pulpwood “forest” -with “little value ecologically as well” …see above. But hey… they burn well ( ..rapidly and ferociously ..see above again ..sigh) once a forest fire does start! And, the earliest a mature hardwood oak forest returns after being cut ..with its intrinsic high biodiversity levels and water saving properties?? ..100 years minimum ….probably closer to 150 years. We can’t afford the latest Forest Service “plan” for our forests here in WNC …once these hardwood tracts are cut …they’re gone for a lifetime.

  2. JT4784

    This is heartbreaking. Just heartbreaking. The ripples of ecological damage that will come…

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