Ecosystem Services In Pee Dee Watershed At Risk From Biomass

There are over 35 million acres of wetland forests in the 14 states of the US South, providing critical ecosystem services, like cleaning air, filtering water, and protecting communities from floods. We know that, on average, natural wetland forests left standing, not logged, are worth over $18,000 per acre. That doesn’t exactly tell us what we could lose, though, if the wood pellet industry has its way.

Why The Pee Dee Watershed Matters

The Yadkin-Pee Dee River flows through North and South Carolina, with headwaters near Blowing Rock, NC and an endpoint in the Winyah Bay near Georgetown, SC. Known as the “Tigris and Euphrates of the South”, the river is a main source of drinking water and economic opportunity for the surrounding communities and has been the site of human civilization for over twelve thousand years, home to the Pee Dee Tribe and other indigenous societies.

Watersheds are land areas that surround rivers, and water from those areas flow into the main river systems. The Pee Dee watershed, which surrounds the Yadkin and Pee Dee rivers, encompasses 18,864 square miles of land in both North and South Carolina.

Nearly 1.8 million acres of the Pee Dee watershed are wetland forests — lands that are swamps, forests surrounding rivers, and other wetland areas with trees. 

Perhaps most importantly, the Pee Dee Watershed is home to roughly 1.5 million people in 19 counties across two states. The communities in these counties rely on the natural infrastructure and ecosystem services that wetland forests provide, equivalent to $36 billion in value. These wetland forests provide critical, life-giving services to urban centers and rural communities like the Pee Dee Indian Tribe throughout the watershed. But these ecosystem services are at risk. The wood pellet industry targets wetland forests just like these for logging.

Extracting Wood Pellets From Forests

The forest products industry is skilled at hiding its forest destruction and degradation behind fancy words and misleading statements. When a logging company goes into a forest in the US South, regardless of where the logs are going, the standard operation is to create a massive clearcut, removing all available wood, leaving only minimal branches, bare earth, and weeds behind. The wood pellet industry often claims it only uses “waste” wood, but their definition of “waste” is very broad, including whole trees not suitable for the paper or lumber industry — like cypress trees in wetland forests.

After harvest — provided that the land is not converted to another use, like development or agriculture — the land may either be planted, usually with commercial monoculture species, or left to regenerate more naturally. If every tree is removed from the area, there will be no trees left to drop seeds for the next generation. This means that the cut down area will only grow with seeds from nearby areas, which may mean that the trees that come back are nothing like the trees that were cut down.

Keystone Species Like Cypress Trees Simply Don’t Survive Clearcuts

Because wetland forests are special ecosystems, clearcuts can be especially problematic. For example, scientists know that cypress trees — keystone species in bottomland hardwoods and floodplain forests — have very strict requirements for regrowth.

Cypress seeds:

  • Do not last longer than one year, which means that a season after the clearcut, there are no more cypress seeds that can germinate.
  • Have a strict window of 30-90 days for flood levels. Too little flooding, and the seedlings are stunted. Too much flooding, and the seedlings drown.
  • Need shade to successfully germinate and grow — the opposite of a clearcut site.

In other words, unless extreme care is taken in wetland forests, cypress trees will not recover from clearcutting.

Wood Pellets In The Pee Dee Watershed

The Pee Dee Watershed includes a variety of protected areas, including public use areas, parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and wildlife management areas. Wetland forests, highly acclaimed for their ecosystem services, make up nearly a quarter of forests in the Pee Dee Watershed.

There are three currently active wood pellet production facilities that source from the Pee Dee Watershed: Enviva Hamlet (Hamlet, NC), Nature’s Earth Pellet Energy (Laurinburg, NC), and Enviva Sampson (Faison, NC). Of the three, the two Enviva facilities use and produce the vast majority (over 90%) of wood pellets from the region, exclusively for export to feed Europe’s growing energy demands.

Wood pellet facilities will accept wood from up to 75 miles away in any direction. That means that when combined, the three facilities have a potential sourcing impact on 1.4 million acres of wetland forests in the watershed. That is over 80% of total wetland forests in the watershed. Over the course of even a decade, impacts from logging can be staggeringly large. If these three facilities affect just 1% of available wetland forests for ten years, 140,000 acres of wetland forests could be destroyed in the Pee Dee Watershed alone.

Wood Pellet Impacts On Ecosystem Services

These impacts are not just felt in the forests, but also in the quality of life for residents of the watershed. We know from our work on ecosystem services that wetland forests in the Pee Dee Watershed provide $26 billion in ecosystem services, which includes:

  • $7.8 billion in protection from extreme events
  • $6.5 billion in recreation and tourism
  • $6 billion in water filtration and production
  • $3.8 billion in food production and pollinator services
  • $2 billion in regulating services and raw materials

If 140,000 acres of the watershed were degraded through logging, it would mean:

  • $730 million lost in protection from extreme events
  • $610 million lost in recreation and tourism
  • $560 million lost in water filtration and production
  • $350 million lost in food production and pollinator services
  • $190 million lost in regulating services and raw materials

I don’t know about you, but $2.4 billion in lost ecosystem services — like clean water, food production, protection from extreme weather events, and quality of life —  seems like an awfully high price to pay for subsidizing Europe’s energy demands.

Are you ready to take a stand for the wetland forests in the Pee Dee region and across the US South? Take action today.

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