Part I: Mississippi Burning
(This is Part 1 of a 2 part series exploring the impact the wood pellet industry is having on the rural communities of the Gulf coast. Part 2 looks at the wood pellet industry in the Florida panhandle and more deeply explore the economics of the industry. Read Part 2 here.)
In June, Dogwood Alliance hit the road for a 2 week SOS Forest Tour across the South. We spent a significant portion of time on the Gulf coast exploring the impact the rapidly expanding wood pellet industry is having on the forests and communities of that region. What we found was, quite frankly, disturbing.
Our first stop was Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While most of our team was preparing for an incredibly inspiring event there that featured passionate activists and amazing speakers like Shamaka Schumake and General Honore, my co-worker Kimala and I rented a car and drove two hours north to see the recently opened Drax wood pellet mill in Gloster, Mississippi that ships its pellets out of a new port facility in Baton Rouge.
Gloster is right near the Louisiana and Mississippi border. Forestry is not new to the area. In fact, the Drax pellet mill was built on the site of a former Georgia-Pacific paper mill. We hoped to:
- follow logging trucks to cuts
- see the beautiful forests that are threatened by this new industry
- talk with some locals that might give us some insight into the impacts they’re feeling from the mill and increased logging
We drove by the mill and saw piles of pine logs as far as the eye could see. These piles were loaded by crane into the de-barker and the pelletizer so they could be sent by rail to Baton Rouge, where they will be loaded on a container ship bound for the UK. Truck after truck pulled into the facility and unloaded giving us a plethora of options of who to follow.
We waited for a truck to unload, and we followed it out of town and through the Homochito National Forest to a gated pine plantation just outside of the National Forest border. Having seen countless clearcuts in pine plantations in my career with Dogwood, we decided to just observe the size of the trees coming out, which varied from 6 to 20 inches in diameter.
Our observations of the log piles back at the facility and the outgoing trucks led us to the conclusion that these are not just plantation thinnings.
Drax will take pines of any size for its mill.
With the paper mill now closed, Drax is the main buyer of pine trees.
It is hard to describe to someone who has not witnessed it themselves the pain of seeing trees grown in plantations. Orderly rows as far as they eye can see like a cornfield, regular spraying of fertilizers and herbicides, and plantations are so quiet because they’re almost devoid of wildlife.
These are not forests; they are tree farms.
Before they can grow into majestic trees, the heavy machinery chops them down like mowing a lawn.
This is the commodification of nature and our forests. We chop down our native forests (in this case likely natural pine or mixed pine/hardwood forests) and destroy all the value these forests contained, replacing them with rows and rows of monoculture tree crops. Loblolly, slash and sand pine have replaced the dozens of species that used to call this region home.
Thoroughly depressed, we ventured into town for a bite to eat and the opportunity to speak with some locals. It was a ghost town, almost devoid of people besides a few friendly folks at a local lunch counter. I took the opportunity to chat with them to get their impression of the pellet mill.
The Locals claimed the pellet mill had little to no positive impact on the local economy. The only people
seeing a benefit were those selling their trees, and the prices they were being paid were nothing to write home about.
As far as bringing jobs to the local community, that seemed like laughable. The Georgia-Pacific paper mill that burned down had employed nearly 250 people, many of them from the local community. The Drax pellet mill employed only 45 people and basically no one from the local community. People left town for work, which explained the ghost town feeling there.
This visit hit me really hard. I just could not get over the senseless waste of our forests being burned for electricity in European power plants.
Though quite different than the terror elicited witnessing a wetland forest laid to waste to make pellets, it was equally disturbing to think how far from natural this style of forestry really is.
Our recently released report on the detrimental impact the wood pellet industry is having on rural economies shows how this rapidly expanding industry is harming the long-term economic viability of rural communities. For short-term gains, industry is stripping away all of the natural resources that could have become the centerpiece of future economic growth. I am sad to say that Gloster, Mississippi is a living example of this.