Southern coalition seeks moratorium on wood chip mills Clear-cutting of forests called threat to several rare, endangered species


UNION MILLS, N.C. - Twenty years ago, when Lynne Faltraco and her husband, Mike, felt the encroaching woes of the big city, they left their teaching jobs in New Jersey and settled among the hardwoods in a hushed forest of the North Carolina Piedmont.

Now, Faltraco is feeling threatened again. This time, it's by the wood-chip mill being built along the railroad tracks near her home.

"This is so horrible," she whispered to herself. "Oh, it's just so awful."

A lot of environmentalists agree. In November, a regional coalition of 35 environmental groups issued a report warning that if the clear-cutting of hardwood stands across the Upper South continues at the current pace - a pace facilitated by the existence of such mills - the forests will start disappearing within 10 years.

About 140 mills

Several rare or endangered species, including reptiles, songbirds and plants, could be threatened with extinction, the group says.

That coalition, the Dogwood Alliance, is urging the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a moratorium on new chip mills.

Such a moratorium should continue, the coalition says, until a federal study can determine whether chip-milling can continue "without permanent damage to water quality, forest health and resiliency, biodiversity, threatened and endangered species, soil and future prosperity" of the region.

Wood-chip mills have exploded across the Southern landscape over the last decade. There are about 140 chip mills in the South, 100 of which opened since 1985.

The mills are highly mechanized, satellite facilities of pulp and paper mills. Using a procedure that quickly strips logs of bark, then grinds them into chips, the mills can process as much wood in a month as a traditional saw mill does in a year.

Most of that wood goes to meet a growing demand for paper - since 1986, pulpwood production in the South has increased 19 percent, according to environmentalists. Hardwood chips also have gone to feed an increasingly hungry Asian market; exports to Japan are up 450 percent since 1989.

The chip-mill boom has facilitated a method of harvesting hardwood trees known as clear-cutting, in which essentially all trees are removed from wide swaths of land.

Representatives of the timber industry acknowledge that clear-cutting, which was practiced for years in the pine forests of the Deep South, isn't pretty. But they say that it is sometimes necessary.

Industry position

Bob Slocum, vice president of the North Carolina Forestry Association, an 86-year-old agency representing forestry in the state, said chip mills offered a needed market for landowners and provided an economic incentive for them to practice better forest management.

"In a lot of the hardwood forests, for the last 50 years, the method has been to go in and take the best trees and leave the low-quality material," Slocum said.

"The only way the landowner can afford to get out of the hole is to get rid of that timber somehow. He would have to do something in order to start over."

Slocum said those in the forestry industry had no incentive to ruin the forests: "If anyone has a vested interest in making sure our forests are protected for the long term, it's the forest industry, because their livelihoods depend on it."

Environmentalists do see long-term damage. After forests are clear-cut, they say, landowners often convert their property to pine plantations or allow other hardwoods to crowd out some of the original trees - thus destroying the habitats of some species.

"Because of the depth of clear-cutting, the age of our forests is decreasing significantly," said Danna Smith, who wrote the study for the Dogwood Alliance. "I don't think people understand what is at stake here. Our forests in the Southeast are some of the

most unique, from a biological perspective, in the whole world."

All the statistics, the competing arguments, the history - sometimes, they all come to nothing.

When Lynne Faltraco, 50, stands in her front yard and looks across the garden to a stand of hardwoods on the other side of the road, all that matters is the beauty she beholds. "We just don't want to be compromised," she said. "Their bottom line is money. Our bottom line is life. And they're just not compatible."

The Faltracos were teachers in Long Branch, N.J., until the late 1970s, when they began to see increasing problems in the schools from drugs and violence. They started looking for a new home in Virginia and North Carolina.

This little unincorporated town near Rutherfordton was a world away. Here, on the main street, such as it is, there are only a post office, a church, a few houses, and the town meeting hall.

"We figured we could grow our own vegetables and be pretty much self-sustaining," Faltraco said.

For 15 years, that's what they did. She taught part-time at the local community college; he was the swimming coach at the YMCA in Spartanburg, S.C.

Then, in 1995, Faltraco began hearing rumors that a chip mill was coming. She and a half-dozen other residents formed the Concerned Citizens of Rutherford County. "We didn't know anything about a chip mill," she said. "We had no idea what it looked like or what it did."

The more they found out, the less they liked.

That was not the reaction from many longtime residents of this area, according to a mill official.

"We've had a lot of resistance from [the newcomers], not much from those who grew up in the county," said Shannon Buckley, an official with Willamette Industries. "Some who moved in from New York or Florida thought it was upsetting the apple cart of what they moved in for."

Buckley said the mill tried to ease residents' concerns, adding an outer shell to reduce noise.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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