Wetland forests span 35 million acres across the US South, as both majestic, long stretching swamps and simple buffers around our rivers and streams. Wetland forests provide nearby towns and cities with clean water, flood prevention, and recreational opportunities. New maps released by the Wetland Forest Initiative identify wetland forests in need of conservation by evaluating the presence of wildlife, social indicators, and threats.
The maps give us critical information about the quality and quantity of wetland forests within each watershed in the US South. I want to demonstrate the power of these maps by sharing details about the Mobile Bay Watershed, one of the fourteen watersheds identified as a critical conservation priority.
Why The Mobile Bay Watershed Matters
The Mobile Bay watershed stretches from the Alabama coast nearly up to its Northern border and even occupies a portion of eastern Mississippi. The watershed includes most major cities within Alabama and is home to 17 threatened and endangered species. The watershed includes around two-thirds of the 2.2 million acres of wetland forests found in Alabama.
Why does this watershed matter? First, there is a high density of wetland forests along three major rivers: the Tensaw and Mobile rivers in the south and the Tombigbee river in the north. Second, this region has high quality wildlife, including multiple endangered and threatened species. Third, this area is highly susceptible to threats like sea level rise, logging, and economic uncertainty. Finally, this watershed is within the sourcing region for the proposed Enviva wood pellet mill in Lucedale, MS.
Enviva’s Impacts in Lucedale, MS
Enviva is currently pressing forward with a plan to build the largest wood pellet plant in the world in Lucedale, MS, which will export over a million tons of wood pellets each year to feed Europe’s energy demands. Despite massive public outcry, the Mississippi state government is allowing the project to move forward.
As the Enviva facility is built and becomes operational in Lucedale, MS, it will have real and lasting impacts on Lucedale residents. The industrial-scale production of wood pellets endangers public health and local quality of life by creating harmful particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that create smog, and other hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Modeling shows that the facility’s impact would result in increased concentrations of air toxins like formaldehyde and acrolein, which could increase the risk of cancer and chronic illnesses.
Beyond air quality concerns, a new wood pellet facility would also decrease quality of life for residents living close by. Roads will be used and potentially damaged by the constant traffic of heavy logging trucks. Residents will be subjected to noises from the facility, 24/7. People living near other Enviva facilities have reported decreased sleep and quality of life as a direct result of Enviva facility operations.
Enviva’s Impacts In The Mobile Bay Priority Watershed
The Mobile Bay watershed, spanning 21,914 sq miles, contains nearly 1.4 million acres of wetland forests. Although the Enviva mill will source from just the southern 15% of the watershed, ultimately, up to 400,000 acres in the Mobile Bay watershed are at risk of being logged for bioenergy.
Based on our previous research, those 400,000 acres in the Mobile Bay watershed provide over $7 billion USD in ecosystem services like recreation and tourism, water filtration and waste treatment, food, pollination, and critically, protection from extreme events. Losing even a fraction of the wetland forest acres in the Mobile Bay watershed would be a huge loss of ecosystem services to the region and its residents.
Enviva’s Impacts In Regional Forests
Enviva’s Lucedale plant will also be sourcing outside of the Mobile Bay watershed. Most pellet mills source from a radius of about 75 miles from their facility, equivalent to a potential sourcing region of 11.3 million acres. Around the Lucedale plant, these maps show that there are 1.9 million acres of wetland forests vulnerable to logging by Enviva’s suppliers. Enviva has a long track record of logging wetland forests, despite claims to the contrary.
Our previous research indicates that logging wetland forests causes them to lose fifteen times their value. If Enviva accepts wood from just a fraction (2%) of wetland forests in the full sourcing region annually, Mississippi and Alabama will lose out on $661 million in ecosystem services each year.
These communities will be more vulnerable to flooding from major storms because their wetland forests will have lost much of their ability to protect the area from extreme events. They’ll lose $165 million in recreational benefits those wetland forests once provided. The increased logging of their wetland forets will affect these communities’ air and water quality, climate regulation, and food production .
These new conservation maps will enable us to do more in-depth analysis on the impacts of wood pellet production on wetland forests in the US South. Are you ready to take action?