Conservation now

The U.S. Forest Service recently released its Southern Forest Futures report, which assesses how Southern forests may change over the next 50 years. It paints a gloomy picture: As urban sprawl expands, industrial logging accelerates, and climate change, invasive species and exotic pests create further stresses, our forests could shrink by as much as 23 million acres. Upland hardwoods, such as those carpeting the mountains around us here in Asheville, could decline by up to 14 percent.

Like neighboring states, North Carolina is at a crossroads, and reading this report could leave us feeling powerless. But the fact is, we can choose a better future.

Healthy forests clean our air and water, offer vital recreational opportunities, help prevent floods and provide a home to the plants and animals that keep our ecosystem in balance. They also remove and store carbon — a vital service in protecting North Carolina's communities from the effects of climate change.

In addition, Southern forests have played an important role in our region's economy, supplying the bulk of the nation’s wood and paper. But industrial logging has taken a toll on North Carolina forests. We've lost millions of acres of native forests and wetlands to clearcuts and pine plantations — especially along our coast.

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of pine plantations in the South increased by 30 percent, the report notes. Besides impacting wildlife, watersheds and rural communities, the widespread loss of diverse natural forests to industrial pine plantations has pushed entire ecosystems, such as the longleaf pine forest that once dominated North Carolina's coastal plain, to the brink of extinction.

And for what? Paper. The South is the world's largest paper-producing region. In North Carolina, wetland forests are being leveled to make KFC's chicken buckets and other packaging that's headed straight for the trash can.

And as if paper production weren’t enough of a drain, our forests face a new threat as companies such as Duke Energy turn to forests as a "renewable" alternative to fossil fuels. It may be a quick, cheap way to get energy, but the large-scale burning of forests will wreak havoc on wildlife, water resources and human communities while spewing even more carbon into our atmosphere. According to the Southern Forest Futures report, logging could more than double, triggering the further expansion of industrial pine plantations from today’s 39 million acres to as much as 63 million acres (or one in every three forested acres) by 2060.

Hence the crossroads: Do we continue down the path of forest destruction or find a better way?

The good news is that the paper industry is slowly shifting into a new era of sustainability. In the past year alone, major companies such as Georgia-Pacific and McDonald's have joined countless other businesses in committing to increasing their recycling and use of recycled paper while avoiding products sourced from endangered forests in places such as North Carolina’s Green Swamp, or from pine plantations established at the expense of natural forests. And just across the mountain in Old Fort, Columbia Forest Products, North America’s largest hardwood-plywood manufacturer, has a mill that’s now certified under the Forest Stewardship Council’s rigorous environmental standards. Corporate America is finally beginning to understand the importance of protecting, rather than destroying, Southern forests.

Meanwhile, the Asheville-based Dogwood Alliance is bringing together forest landowners, conservation groups and big companies such as Staples, Home Depot and Coca-Cola in a project called the Carbon Canopy (carboncanopy.com). Charting a new path for the Southern forest economy, this collaborative effort is aligning diverse interests to spur corporate investment in forest conservation while helping forest landowners in Western North Carolina and beyond profit from leaving more trees (and carbon) in the woods. Imagine a future where North Carolina's economy expanded in step with forest protection while industrial logging decreased!

It all comes down to one key question: Do we want to bank our economic future on markets that bring our forests down in flames or needlessly waste them as trash? Or do we want a forest economy that combines profitability and sustainability? If we truly value the important climate, water, community and wildlife benefits forests provide, we need to create a shared vision and strategy for protecting our Southern forests.

This would include: developing markets for things like watershed protection and forest-carbon storage; becoming a world leader in sustainably produced wood and paper products; and aggressively pursuing energy conservation, efficiency and clean, renewable sources such as solar and wind power. Together, these steps will ensure healthy, abundant forests and a strong regional economy for generations to come.

— Brevard resident Danna Smith is executive director of the Dogwood Alliance (dogwoodalliance.org), a nonprofit environmental group.

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