Dogwood Alliance Campaigns Director Rita Frost and I recently went on a flight with SouthWings volunteer pilot, Stu Bailey, to conclude our latest ground investigation of a particularly devastating wetland clearcut in Eastern North Carolina.
Every year, Dogwood Alliance conducts investigations on the sourcing practices of the wood pellet industry led by Enviva. We expose the truth about these practices, from the ground and from the air, and we document the condemning evidence for the public and policymakers.
As I tried to keep down my breakfast (and failed, but I’ll spare you those details), I got a thousand-foot view of what industrial logging looks like in Eastern North Carolina and Virginia.
Everyone can see the impacts of industrial logging from the ground, driving by clearcuts or plots of arrow-straight pines. But from the air, the land becomes a surreal patchwork quilt of tree farms and clearcuts: a fabric of industrialization with stitching of river and highway.
If you’ve ever traveled by airplane and scored a window seat, you’ve probably noticed this about the landscape, too. Maybe you’ve peered through your window and taken note how so much of our once wild country has been subdued into straight-edged plots with right angles sharp and precise. At these times, it’s hard to believe we’re looking at the same planet where we find untamed, lush forests and other natural spaces.
We flew over miles and miles of tree plantations at various stages of growth. In adjacent plots, we saw swaths of raw clearcuts, light green saplings, and darker green plots of pines getting ready to be cut once again. The landscape was dotted with other signs of industrialization, too. We cruised over smokestacks from polluting facilities, along with hog manure lagoons and factories that house thousands of swine.
When I first showed the aerial photos of plantation forestry to my partner, his first reaction was: “Wow, that’s a lot of farmland.” He’s a farmer himself and works on a small organic vegetable farm in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. He was surprised when I clarified that the acres and acres of neat rows weren’t vegetables or fruits — they’re trees.
These plantations, or tree farms, are farmland. But they get all the kudos for being forests, a generous definition that the industry relies on for their image, funding, and continued expansion.
Of the clearcuts and degraded forestland that Rita and I flew over, some of it ends up in trucks headed to the wood pellet export industry led by Enviva to be burned as biomass overseas. We got birds-eye views of Enviva’s Northampton facility in NC and their Southampton mill in VA, with long stretches of logs piled like matchsticks. Other logging cuts end up at pulp and paper mills and will turn into single-use products like diapers and coffee cups.
All of that logging is part of the impact that industrial forestry has had on the Southeastern US over decades — where forests are disturbed at a rate four times higher than South American rainforests. And all of it is having a devastating impact on our climate, communities, and natural forests throughout the South.
The US South is the world’s largest wood-producing region, and a mix of existing markets, large capital investments, and industry-favorable government policies have incentivized the degradation of our landscape. Because of this, we’ve lost 33 million acres of natural forest, and fast-growing monoculture pine plantations have increased by 40 million acres in the US South. Now, we have more plantations and less true, natural forests than ever before.
But that’s not what you’ll hear from the forest industry, whose strategy these days is to paint themselves as the hero in the climate story.
Industry will tell you that plantations are the answer to the climate crisis. That cutting down trees and turning them into short-lived products or burning them at power stations will fix our carbon balance if we just look at their math. And that if we want to save trees, well, we just have to cut more down.
We’re not buying the story they’re selling. Neither are conservation scientists like Dr. Simon Lewis, Dr. Charlotte Wheeler, and their colleagues, who penned a paper in the April installment of Nature that turns the forest industry’s climate claims on its head.
The paper, “Restoring natural forests is the best way to remove atmospheric carbon” argues that “plans to triple the area of plantations will not meet 1.5 °C climate goals.” Our best bet, according to these scientists? Natural forests.
The UN IPCC report calls on governments around the world to scale up forest protection in order to keep global temperatures below 1.5 °C. Policymakers in other parts of the world are returning the call — but most of the land pledged globally for forest restoration is slated to grow crops as tree farms or agroforestry. Scientists warn that “plantations hold little more carbon, on average, than the land cleared to plant them.” Then the carbon that planted trees uptake is rapidly released when they are cut in short rotations for profit.
Natural forest regeneration is the most effective and cheapest strategy to store and sequester carbon at the rate and scale we need to avoid climate catastrophe. In other words, industrial logging and plantation forestry is actively interfering with our ability to maintain global temperatures below 1.5 °C. Communities around the world are already experiencing the effects of climate change like extreme weather, droughts, heat waves, and rising sea levels. There are more dire consequences ahead if we continue down this path.
Now more than ever, we need to fundamentally shift our forest economy and policies to those that value forests more standing than logged, instead of continuing to invest in the status quo that puts profit above people and planet.
Just think: if leaders like North Carolina’s Governor Cooper put forest protection at the forefront of their climate and clean economic development agenda and broke their silence on destructive forestry practices, what would become of the patchwork landscape of the South? We could see our forests grow old, more connected, stronger. A birds-eye view in the future could have some relics of a distant past, if we let natural forests regenerate and restore.
As Rita and I flew back toward the Chesapeake Regional Airport, we got another look at a beautiful natural wetland forest, the Great Dismal Swamp — a stunning preserved area with forested wetlands surrounding Lake Drummond. The mixed hardwood forest looks nothing like the manicured pine plantations from above or from the ground.
It’s natural and protected landscapes like these that are the real answer to our climate crisis, while also providing us with clean air and water, tourism and recreation, storm protection, and critical biodiversity.
While the forest industry continues to spin tales about the plantation forest model, we’ll keep on exposing the truth about industrial logging and the danger it poses for forests, climate, and communities — and working toward a world where our markets, policies, and culture capture the full value of forests. Stay tuned for the release of our updated investigation booklet with photo evidence from our 2018 and 2019 investigations!