Chip mills have been the focus of much public debate lately, largely because of groups opposed to timber harvesting and the use of wood products. They are savvy enough to know that, to convince the public that timber harvesting is bad, they need a rallying point — a demon on which they can blame all environmental problems. In their search for such a beast, they’ve found chip mills to be an easy target, because so few people know what they are or understand what they do. But like the spotted owl of the Northwest, chip mills are simply a surrogate for the real target: timber harvesting.
In 1998, North Carolina initiated a comprehensive study of the economic and ecological impacts of wood-chip production in the state. The work, done by scientists from N.C. State and Duke universities, took more than two years to complete. The results of this study debunk many of the myths about chip mills and timber harvesting and provide a scientific foundation for developing policies to ensure the future health and productivity of our forests.
The study pointed out that chip mills are not new. The first one in North Carolina — built in Canton in 1906 — has been in operation ever since. This mill, like those built since, takes low-grade trees and wood debris from land-clearing and grinds it into small pieces called “chips.” The chips are then processed at a pulp mill to make the thousands of paper products we all use every day — the newspaper you are now reading, the cereal box that your breakfast came in, the magazines and books you buy, and the checks with which you pay your bills, to name a few.
The study found that chip mills do not drive demand or harvest rates; it also noted that they have largely replaced the hundreds of satellite wood yards once seen across the state, being a more efficient way to process and ship wood for paper production. By providing improved markets for low-grade wood, these facilities improve utilization, expand management options for landowners, and may reduce the total number of acres that must be harvested to meet our demand for wood products. This improved utilization encourages rapid regeneration of the forest and provides an economic return to landowners that serves as an incentive to keep their lands in forest.
The scientists found that our forests produce the highest-quality water and contribute the least to sedimentation or other impairments. The impacts from timber harvesting are minor and are easily managed by state requirements to protect water quality. Compliance with these requirements is estimated at 95 percent. Likewise, the study stated that stormwater runoff from the mills does not present a threat to water quality.
The study also detailed that — while our forests are and will probably remain healthy, productive and diverse — they face mounting pressure from urban growth. Between 1982 and 1997, more than 1 million acres of forest was converted to nonforest use. If this trend continues, the study predicts that we will be removing more timber each year than we grow. While this isn’t necessarily bad, since we have huge inventories of both pine and hardwoods, we need to be concerned about the loss of forest land and the level of management on the remaining acres. Eighty years ago, we were harvesting four times as much timber as was grown each year. In response, attention was given to reforestation, improving forest management, and providing incentives and technical assistance to private landowners. Our forests today are a direct result of these actions.
Unlike fossil fuels, metals and other resources, trees are renewable — they can be harvested, used to make products, and regrown in an endless cycle. The future of North Carolina’s 18.7 million acres of timberland depends to a large extent on landowners’ financial ability to keep their land in trees, instead of converting it to other economically attractive uses.
The message from the N.C. Chip Mill Study is that the key to improving forest management is ensuring that landowners have access to varied markets and the information and technical assistance they need to make knowledgeable management decisions — not restricting or limiting markets and management options, as some environmental groups would have you believe. Chip mills give landowners an additional market for their wood, an additional source of income, and an additional incentive to reforest their land after a harvest. Far from being the evil facilities that some people claim they are, chip mills may indeed be part of the answer to how North Carolina can maintain its status as one of the nation’s leading forestry states.
[Bob Slocum is executive vice president of the N.C. Forestry Association, a private, nonprofit partnership of forest managers, landowners, loggers, mill operators, furniture manufacturers and others. This column was reprinted with permission from CarolinaJournal.com, the on-line magazine of the John Locke Foundation.]