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They're coming down fast in scenic Chatham County--and you can't blame it all on development.

Where Did the Trees Go? 

In the Triangle's most scenic county, forests and woodlots are coming down fast--and you can't blame it all on development.

It's the kind of landscape that tugs at the heartstrings--rolling meadows of fescue and broomsage, dairy cows standing like chess pieces amid alternating bands of shadow and winter light. Farmhouses huddle beneath domes of ancient oaks. And over the hillsides and down in the swales, forests spread in thick profusion, hiding within their protective veil songbirds and squirrels, wild turkey and white-tailed deer.

Chatham County still looks like the Eden that so many of us came to love, either as children growing up in the South or as migrants from the urbanized (choose one) North, Midwest, or West Coast. We want Chatham to remain just as it is--a Bob Timberlake painting in three dimensions, a refuge for our WalMart-battered brains. But by our very presence, we guarantee its change. Development, of course, is the biggest threat. On the roads leading south from Chapel Hill and east from Pittsboro, subdivisions and shopping centers are springing up to accommodate the burgeoning population of the Triangle. Obviously, trees must be cut to make way for all those buildings and all that pavement.

But how many trees, and how they're cut, is a different matter. The clear-cutting of woodlots for cash is changing the face of Chatham County--not only in the expanding urban fringe, but also in the rural areas that remain.

All across Chatham, trees are coming down--some in 15- to 20-acre chunks, some in swaths of 1,000 acres and more. To most farmers, foresters and professional loggers, clear-cutting timber is nothing to get upset about--a practice that has been carried on for a century or more. If you view it through the lens of time, they say, it's not much different from harvesting a field of corn.

"Clear-cutting itself is not necessarily damaging to a forest ecosystem," says Dan Richter, professor of forest soils and ecology at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. "Most of the tree species that occupied the site before a cut will vigorously regenerate over time."

To others, clear-cuts are a sacrilege.

"I'm here to tell you, there is a monster stalking the Southern forests of the United States," Chatham County Commissioner Gary Phillips said at a recent press conference. "Its name is industrial logging and its tool of destruction is the chip mill."

Wood-chipping has been part of pulp- and paper-mill operations in North Carolina since the early 1900s. Chippers are basically giant grinding machines that take whole trees into their maw and spit them out as matchbook-sized pieces. The chips are then converted either to pulp--for the manufacture of paper, cardboard and the like--or to one of a new generation of products made from wood ground into particles and glued back together. The latter include particle board, fiber board, and a good deal of modern furniture and cabinetry.

Until recently, chipping operations were out of sight and out of mind for most people in North Carolina. They were usually located adjacent to the large pulp and paper mills in remote areas of the coastal plain and mountains. But as those pulp and paper mills have come to rely more on outside sources of wood, and as chip-mill technology has become more mobile, freestanding chip mills have sprung up around the state. At last count there were 18, including one on the Wake-Chatham line and one just down the road in Moore County.

Just as residents of the coastal plain have risen up against industrial hog farms, citizens in the mountains and Piedmont are protesting the spread of chip mills. Citizen groups have formed in Rutherford and Stokes counties to fight proposed mills (though the mill in Rutherford County has since been built). Meanwhile, the Dogwood Alliance, based in Brevard, N.C., is organizing against chip mills throughout the South.

The argument is not so much against the mills themselves--they don't produce any significant pollution--but rather their effects on the surrounding forest. Protesters claim that chip mills hasten the clear-cutting of forests within their market area (typically an 80 to 100 mile radius), with attendant losses of scenic value, wildlife habitat and water quality. They are demanding a halt to new chip-mill construction in North Carolina until it can be determined exactly what the mills' collective impact is on our forests and communities. In response, Gov. Jim Hunt has set up a Wood Chip Study Committee (see "Assessing the impact" page 27), which is due to report its findings in February.

Timber-industry representatives are furious at the protests. They argue that chip-mill owners should not be held responsible for a type of forestry they say is generally benign in terms of its ecological impact. Chip mills, they insist, are simply using a technology that makes more efficient use of wood fiber, and should no more be banned than the chainsaw or the bulldozer.

Citizens fear the chip mill in large part because of its huge appetite for trees. The average annual capacity of the mills in North Carolina is 250,000 tons, meaning they are each capable of processing between 1,000 and 2,600 acres of trees a year. Equally important, they can make chips from trees of any species and size, down to saplings no thicker than a man's thumb. This ability to make use of "low-grade" trees encourages loggers to clear-cut--that is, to harvest all the trees on a site. By contrast, in more traditional "high-grade" or selective cuts, only the larger, straighter trees come down.

On a typical clear-cut, every hardwood and pine tree more than 10 to 12 inches in diameter will be sent to a sawmill and cut into board lengths to make framing lumber or veneer. The rest will either be chipped on site by a machine known as a whole tree chipper (generally used for small quantities of wood), or trucked to a chip mill for processing.

Foresters argue that this total utilization of wood fiber reduces the amount of acreage that needs to be cut, leaving a better (more open) site for replanting. But what most folks see after a clear-cut is a moonscape of stumps and barren soil, open to the wind and the driving rain. The forest that may have grown there for a half-century or more, that may have served as a cherished landmark or a favorite stomping ground, is gone.

Heading out from his farmhouse in the western corner of Chatham County, Gary Phillips leads a tour of the battle zone. It doesn't take long to arrive at the first clear-cut: a 40-acre tract rising like a powerline right-of-way over the top of a steep knoll. Phillips, an owner of Weaver Street Realty in Carrboro, sold this property thinking it would be preserved.

"That hillside used to be covered with one of the most beautiful stands of chestnut oaks in the county," Phillips says. "When I heard Len was planning to cut it, I went over to his house and begged him to change his mind. It makes me sick every time I see it."

Len Andrews, the poultry farmer who owns the land, says he clear-cut the woodlot because of damage caused by Hurricane Fran. He says the storm knocked down many of the big trees and damaged others. He wanted to make some income from the fallen trees, and a timber buyer convinced him that the best thing to do was clear-cut and start anew.

Phillips shakes his head, saying timber buyers have used Hurricane Fran as an excuse to talk many farmers into clear-cutting their woodlots. "I think there's a lot more pressure being put on landowners to cut their timber than in the past," he says. "I get approached by a timber-buyer at least twice a month, and I only own 46 acres. It's a gigantic feeding frenzy on the Southern forests."

Indeed, as the federal government has reduced timber harvesting in the national forests, most of which are located in the Pacific Northwest, timber companies are increasingly turning to private woodlands in the South to meet the global demand for wood products. Southern states have more privately owned timberlands than anywhere in the country, offer better growing conditions and impose fewer environmental constraints.

Chatham County, with its 302,000 forested acres, must present a tempting target to the timber industry. And in fact, timber companies have owned large chunks of the county for decades. The difference now, Phillips says, is that buyers are going after the owners of small woodlots.

The increasing pressure to sell timber in Chatham County is evident in the explosion of timber-buyers cruising the back roads and knocking on doors. Chris Morris, state extension forester for Chatham County, says there were only three or four timber-buyers working the county 20 years ago. Today, Morris says, there are more than 100.

How much timber is being cut? There are no exact records kept, but according to the best estimates of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, timber harvest in Chatham County has grown from 24 million cubic feet in 1990 to 33 million cubic feet in 1998. Using timber-industry averages of 2,500 to 5,000 cubic feet of harvestable wood per acre, that means that between 6,615 and 13,230 acres of trees were cut in 1998 alone.

Phillips and the Dogwood Alliance place the blame for increased timber-cutting on the growing number of chip mills. But timber-buyer Dennis Hearn of Chatham Lumber Co. says chip mills are but one of many factors. "It's a whole lot of things--new markets, expanded mills, selling of land for development, farmers needing extra income. You name it, it's hitting this area."

Timber-industry representatives are quick to remind us that we can't have wood and paper products without cutting trees. It's better, they argue, to harvest wood close to home, which provides local jobs and cuts down on the energy consumption that comes with shipping wood from the Pacific Northwest or some South American rainforest. What's important, they say, is that the trees cut down be replanted or allowed to regenerate naturally.

In Chatham County, however, the number of trees being removed far exceeds what is being regrown. In the most recent year for which data are available, 1990, Chatham County suffered a deficit of 6.8 million cubic feet of timber--between 1,372 and 2,744 acres. That gave Chatham the fourth-highest deficit of any county in the state.

To their credit, government foresters strongly urge landowners to replant after their woodlots have been cut. But what they are urging people to replant with is another source of controversy.

"We've replanted the land with loblolly pine," Len Andrews says of the wooded knoll that Gary Phillips so loved. "They bring the quickest financial return."

Andrews is hardly alone. Clear-cutting hardwoods and replanting with pine is a phenomenon occurring all over the Southeast. It's easy to see why. Pine grows more quickly than most hardwoods, enabling landowners to harvest two crops of pine for every one of hardwoods. And pine generally commands a higher price--$4,000 to $5,000 an acre for a 35-year-old stand of loblolly, against maybe $3,000 an acre for an equally old stand of mixed hardwoods.

"Pine will bring you more dollars sooner," says Morris, Chatham's extension forester. "During the last year, we did 72 reforestation plans for landowners in Chatham County, and I'd say we recommended replanting with pine on 90 percent of those."

This conversion of Southern hardwood forests to pine plantations is of serious concern to many environmentalists. Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor and one of the world's leading experts on biological diversity, says that intensively managed pine plantations--those where the understory is regularly sprayed with herbicides and cleared of competing growth--support only a fraction of the plant and animal species that a natural forest does. Meanwhile, others argue that pine plantations can support almost as great a diversity of wildlife as a natural forest--if the trees are allowed to grow to maturity (30 to 40 years), and if hardwoods are left to grow in the understory.

That's only one of the arguments raging back and forth about the ecological effects of clear-cutting. Some wildlife experts warn that clear-cutting threatens a class of birds known as Neo-tropical migrants (including scarlet tanagers and hooded warblers). These birds need large expanses of unbroken forest to protect them from more aggressive "edge" species like bluejays and starlings. Meanwhile, other wildlife experts claim that clear-cutting benefits species such as deer and wild turkey, which find food and shelter among the brambles and saplings that rise in a clear-cut's wake. Indeed, both deer and wild turkey are thriving in Chatham County, according to state wildlife officials.

There's little agreement, either, on how seriously timber-cutting affects water quality. Timber harvest, whether clear-cutting or selective cutting (removing only a portion of the trees), has the potential to pollute water by increasing soil erosion. As roads are cut into forested areas and heavy equipment knocks down trees and drags them to loading areas, soil is exposed and ruts created that provide avenues for sediment to wash downhill into streams and rivers. That sediment can settle to the bottom of streams and quickly smother aquatic insects and fish eggs.

The state urges--but does not require--loggers to prevent sedimentation by following what it calls Forestry Best Management Practices (BMPs). These practices include avoiding timbering in wet weather, placing culverts over stream crossings, and leaving a partial buffer of trees along stream banks. (The rules urge that some trees be left within 50 feet of the banks, but loggers can and do cut the choicest trees.)

How often these recommendations are followed, and how effective they are even if followed, is a matter of some debate.

"Forestry causes minimal problems with erosion are far as I have seen," says Tom White, forest ranger for District 3, which includes Chatham and the surrounding counties. "We drive around inspecting for compliance with BMPs. If we see a problem and a logger refuses to work with us, we turn him over to the Division of Land Resources. We haven't had to do that in the time I've been here."

Kevin Meehan, a board member of the Chatham-based Haw River Assembly and a participant in the group's River Watch program, tells a different story. "I observe that the loggers generally follow the BMPs, but sometimes the landowner gets greedy and tells them to cut right down to the stream banks," Meehan says. At Big Woods, a development near Jordan Lake, Meehan says he spotted a logger "actually dragging trees across the creek. We called the Forest Service and had them put a stop to that."

Meehan believes the state's current policy of urging voluntary compliance with BMPs is inadequate to protect water quality. He would like to see mandatory 50-foot buffers placed on all streams in the state--a measure that's already been taken in the Neuse River watershed. The Haw River Assembly has made passage of such a bill its No. 1 priority for 2000. The timber industry has vowed to fight it.

A few miles northwest of Pittsboro, in what is fast becoming the urban fringe of the Triangle, Gary Phillips arrives at what he considers one of the most wasteful clear-cuts in the county. This is a 1,000-acre tract of former woodlands that a land speculator bought from a timber company, clear-cut for cash and sold to real-estate developers. Two-hundred-thousand-dollar homes are going up amid the scrub pine and brambles. It will be decades before they feel the shade of a spreading oak.

"Clear-cutting land for the value of the timber and then selling it for real estate is not just environmentally ruinous," Phillips says, "it's financially stupid. Homebuyers around here place a high value on having trees on their property. I did a paired study of the dollar value of lots without timber vs. lots with mature hardwoods on them, and the difference was up to 100 percent!"

How common is clear-cutting in advance of development? "Unfortunately, it's very common," says Anne Joyner, a former land developer in Chatham, Orange and Alamance counties. "Landowners take the short-sighted view and think they're coming out ahead by selling the trees, but in many cases it reduces the value of the lot. For one thing, the trees are gone and for another, the land is covered with ruts that last forever. As a residential land developer, I'm not interested in buying property like that."

One argument frequently heard in favor of chip mills is that they increase the value of timberlands and, thus, encourage landowners to keep land as productive forests instead of selling out for development. But on the urban fringe of the Triangle, where land sells for as much as $15,000 an acre, replanting trees for a return of half that much 30 years down the road is not a compelling option.

"If you've got property within 50 miles of the Research Triangle Park, you're out of forestry and into development," says Dan Gelbert, a Durham-based consulting forester whose company manages approximately 20,000 acres of private forest. "From a timber-management standpoint, it's a nightmare. No one is managing for the long term. All they want to know is, 'What can I get for development?'"

Gelbert is one of several consulting foresters in the Triangle area who offer to manage woodlands both for timber yield and for other values, such as wildlife. "We do a lot of shelterwood cuts where we leave a large pine tree every 60 feet or so and take out everything else," he says. "We do thinnings and controlled burns. In mixed stands, we take out the pines and leave the hardwoods, because that's what the homeowners want."

Phillips praises consultants like Gelbert who offer alternatives to clear-cutting. He urges people who feel the need to make some income off their land to consider those alternatives. For his own part, Phillips has put a conservation easement on his own property that forbids clear-cutting, and he's convinced several neighboring landowners to do the same.

"More and more, conservation easements are including either prohibitions on clear-cutting, or provisions that timbering be done in accordance with an approved plan written by a consulting forester," Phillips says. "This allows you to make some income off the land without destroying the forest."

An ordained Methodist minister and a persuasive speaker and writer, Phillips has also been denouncing clear-cutting in the pulpit and the press. The latter has run him afoul of some fellow Chatham County landowners, most notably writer and former realtor Wallace Kaufman.

In a lengthy article in the Chatham Journal, Kaufman criticizes Phillips for making blanket condemnations of clear-cutting without a solid grasp of the facts. Most of the land we seek to preserve "in its natural state," Kaufman notes, has been cut many times in the past and always grew back. Kaufman accuses Phillips of wanting landowners to forgo the right to make a profit off their land in order to provide the rest of the community with "visual entertainment."

Like other clear-cutting opponents, Gary Phillips says his concerns are about much more than aesthetics, that they are based on proven threats to water quality and wildlife. But there is no doubt that when it comes to the issue of cutting trees, emotions run high and perceptions and presumptions among educated people can be as different as night and day.

And therein lies the potential for conflict. The South has yet to experience the kinds of confrontations familiar to the Pacific Northwest, where loggers and environmentalists have squared off in the woods and green activists have chained themselves to trees and sabotaged equipment. But the demands on Southern forests are growing on all sides, and the scramble for landowners' hearts and minds is on.

In this kind of atmosphere, objective research is badly needed to sort out exactly what's going on in Chatham and other counties. Forests are highly complex systems, and how we use them affects a dizzying spectrum of life--individual and local economies, plant and animal communities, soil fertility, and air and water quality. The report of the state's Wood Chip Study Committee (see "Assessing the impact") should give us the best look yet at what is going on in our forests, and what will--and should--happen in the future. Environmentalists and concerned landowners hope it will be the basis for policies that promote sustainable forestry--that is, no net loss of forested acres, and no deterioration of environmental quality.

Regardless of what policies the state comes up with, you can be sure that folks like Gary Phillips will fight to preserve every acre of forest. They may be concerned about preserving water quality or habitat for Neo-tropical migrants, but it's probably the loss of the trees that hurts the most. It's something you can't quantify, but it's something of value nonetheless.

Driving through the rolling countryside on the way back to his farm, Phillips offers one more comment. He seems hesitant to speak at first, but when the words come out, they're from the heart. "To me, there's something deeply spiritual about the Southern forest," Phillips says. "I think it's a crime just to see it as a physical resource--something to be sold off and turned into cash. I'll do what I have to do to save it." EndBlock

  • They're coming down fast in scenic Chatham County--and you can't blame it all on development.

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