North Carolina can’t see the forests for the trees

North Carolina’s forests are in trouble. Depending on where you live or vacation, that fact may or may not be obvious. In the western piedmont and mountain regions of the state, clear-cuts have stripped entire hillsides, and in the coastal plain, wooded swamplands have been drained and replaced by row after row of planted pine trees.

But the problems facing the state’s forests go far beyond what meets the eye. A recent environmental study of wood-chip mills commissioned by Gov. Hunt confirms that North Carolina is losing forest lands and diversity at unprecedented rates. North Carolina’s total forest area has been steadily declining since 1964, and timber harvests statewide will outpace new growth by 2005.

Some natural forests are being felled to make way for new commercial and residential developments, but many more acres are being cut and replaced with single-species pine-tree farms — at the expense of rare birds and wildlife. Forested buffers along streams are among the least expensive and most effective ways to protect clean water, as well as the native mussels and other aquatic life that depend on this habitat. But loggers are allowed to cut to the river’s edge, and many do. And though state law prohibits sediment pollution from logging sites, the law makes no provision for oversight, and enforcement, when it happens at all, is toothless.

At risk are some of the richest and most diverse forests in the world. The World Wildlife Fund has reported that the southeastern United States contains several forest types of national and global significance. Forests throughout the state and region are home to a huge number of native plant and animal species, many of them rare and endangered. The extensive conversion of wetlands and natural forests to pine farms (particularly on North Carolina’s coastal plain), combined with forest fragmentation and the loss of old-growth forests statewide, has had serious and lasting impacts on forest ecosystems. Trees grow back readily, but functioning forests do not.

The proliferation of wood-chip mills has only made matters worse, increasing harvest volumes and harvested acreage in counties where timber removals already exceed new growth.

The reality of what’s happening to our forests is not news. The governor’s wood-chip study, along with a forest-sustainability study conducted for him in 1996, confirms what forest ecologists and other experts have feared for some time. Noted Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson wrote in 1998 that “the assault on Southeastern forests, now aggravated by the growth of the chip mill” is an “invisible tragedy.”

What’s most troubling is that North Carolina can’t seem to see the forests for the trees: The state has neither a plan nor a vision for reversing these disturbing trends and putting our forests back on a sustainable path.

Sustainable forests are also essential to a robust and profitable forest-products industry. So far, however, industry leaders have turned a blind eye to the forest crisis, choosing instead to point the finger at urban sprawl as the main threat. All agree that sprawl is a problem, and timber companies and their sizable real-estate subsidiaries would do well to join conservationists and others in doing something about it. But forest health depends upon sustainable timber practices, too. Unless foresters begin actively managing the lands in their care not only for their valuable timber but also to protect wildlife, water quality and other nontimber values, many of those values will be lost forever.

A broad coalition of business, conservation and community groups is calling for a temporary moratorium on new chip mills to relieve some of the pressure on North Carolina’s forests and give the next governor and legislature time to generate sustainable solutions. Temporarily banning new facilities would have little or no economic impact, as most of the existing chip mills in the state are operating at only a third of capacity and could easily accommodate fluctuations in wood-chip demand.

North Carolina has a number of policies in place to protect its vital air and water resources. Remarkably, however, the state has turned its back on one of its most precious natural resources.

It’s time to come together to develop a plan for sustainable forests that all North Carolinians can be proud of — for generations to come.

[Daniel Whittle is a senior attorney with the North Carolina office of Environmental Defense, a New York-based national nonprofit organization representing more than 300,000 members (including 8,000 in North Carolina). To learn more about Environmental Defense, check its Web site (www.environmentaldefense.org).]

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