Southern US Forests Deserve to be in the Spotlight of Efforts to Stop Global Deforestation

I attended the Innovation Forum’s Washington, DC conference on “How businesses can tackle deforestation.” Over the span of two days, various environmental groups working to protect forests sat on panels alongside corporate executives to discuss challenges and opportunities surrounding the adoption and implementation of corporate commitments designed to end deforestation or otherwise reduce businesses’ impacts on forests. The conversation was engaging and compelling, allowing for debate on points of tension while also focusing on finding a path forward.

In the midst of all the great discussions, I noticed the deforestation associated with industrial forestry in the Southern US, our own backyard, didn’t get the air time it deserves.

Loblolly tree plantation
Loblolly pine plantation

Not only is the US South home to the most biologically diverse temperate forests and freshwater ecosystems in the world, but it is also the world’s largest wood producing region. The supply chains of some of the world’s largest corporations, including many of those present at the conference, have profound impacts on the forests of this region.

In the South, the forest products industry has long been a driver of forest clearing and the conversion of natural forests to mono-culture pine plantations. According to a global forest cover loss study published last year in Science, forest disturbance in Southeastern US forests was four times that of Brazil from 2000 to 2012. Industrial logging in the subtropical forests of the US South was cited as a major driver.

Scientists made it a point to note that Southern US forests are largely treated as a “crop”.

USFS Southern Futures Report showing growth in plantations & loss of natural forests under high growth & moderate wood pellet growth scenarios. In both cases, pine plantationsincrease & natural forests decrease.
USFS Southern Futures Report shows growth in plantations & loss of natural forests

According to the US Forest Service (USFS), tens of millions of acres of natural forests in the South have also been converted to fast-growing pine plantations. Loblolly and slash pine, which used to make up a small fraction of the overall natural pine forest in the South, now dominate the landscape of the Coastal Plain. On the other hand, natural long-leaf pine savannahs, which used to be ubiquitous, have been reduced to a small fraction of their original range. The historical ditching and draining of wetland forests to make way for intensively managed pine plantations has altered the hydrological function of entire watersheds.

The conversion of wetland forests to plantations has been a primary driver of wetlands loss across the region.

Most agree that the explosive growth of the palm oil industry and the resulting conversion of millions of hectares of rainforests to plantations are drivers of global deforestation that must be addressed. Similarly, in the Southern US, in just in the last five years, an exploding new market for wood as a fuel source for generating electricity has researchers at the USFS projecting yet another wave of deforestation in the US South over the coming decades to make way for new, fast-growing pine plantations.

With the USDA approving the commercialization of GMO pine, this next generation of pine plantations could have even greater and longer-term ecological impacts.

News coverage exposing the impacts of the wood pellet industry on wetland forests in the US South has been high-profile and wide-spread (BBC, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Daily Mail, Grist, Politico, etc.). ENGOs have launched public campaigns. Scientists have sounded the alarm bell. Yet, the topic of wood pellet exports from the US South to Europe did not make the agenda, and there was no mention of the US context in the panel discussion on GMOs. Despite historical trends and future projections, there was an almost silent undertone that somehow the US is “different”. Because we are really, really good at growing trees, deforestation from industrial logging isn’t really an issue here at home. Yet, just the week before the conference a new study was released documenting the disconnect between biodiversity, protected areas and conservation priorities in the US. The Southern US was the clear winner when it comes to biodiversity. By contrast, it was the clear loser when it comes to protected areas.

Obviously Southern US forests deserve our focused attention.

Over the past decade, Dogwood has been diligent, persistent and successful in convincing some of the world’s largest producers and consumers of wood and paper in the US to adopt new policies and supply chain controls to reduce their impact on forests. Some of these companies, including Staples, International Paper and Domtar, spoke on a panel from the corporate perspective about their work to implement forest sustainability commitments in the Southern US. These companies are making meaningful progress. This progress has been both informed and supported by environmental organizations. Dogwood Alliance has been working diligently with these and other companies to tackle deforestation through supply chain management right here at home. Notably absent, however, was an environmental organization’s perspective about deforestation in the US South. Dogwood Alliance and others are striving to fill that gap, not only at conferences like this one, but in the broader discussion around stopping deforestation and forest degradation globally.

I will continue to attend forums and conferences focused on stopping deforestation. I hope next time there can be more discussion that includes environmental groups about the newest driver of deforestation – wood as fuel for electricity – as well as innovative strategies for stopping deforestation in the largest wood producing region of the world.

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