Clear Cutting and State Forests

Underutilization of Privately Held Tennessee Land Resources, Economic Benefits of Increased in Land Managed for Timber

The Need for Additional Markets for Tennessee Forest Products

The News Hour on PBS had a feature Monday May 1, 2000 on the subject of the proliferation of chip mills in the southeastern United States. The focus of the article was the Upper Cumberland Region of Tennessee and interviews with representatives of the so called “Dogwood Coalition” as well as landowners and timber industry representatives. This was on the heals of a front page article in The Tennessean on the same subject the week before.

The Dogwood Coalition and other environmental groups believe that chip mills pose a serious threat to the vitality of the Tennessee forests. They reason that the clear cutting harvest method employed to provide trees to these mills is harmful to the environment (because of damage to streams) and encourages the establishment of single species forest plantations (usually of pine). Clear cutting is ugly and piney woods do not make great wildlife habitat. They argue that tourists do not want to view clear cuts nor hike in pine plantations.

The forest industry argues that the Tennessee forest has been an under producing asset for generations. The typical mixed-hardwood forest has been “high graded” for the past 50 years or more. What remains are trees which are substandard , perhaps genetically inferior and without any market value (for use as saw timber). Timber stand improvement techniques advocated by the State forester so as to improve the quality of trees, have been shown to work, but have not been widely adopted by small private landowners who make up the majority of forest plots in the State. Foresters see the chip mill as an answer to years of searching for new markets for Tennessee timber. With new markets, and the clean slate provided by clear cutting, they will be better able to persuade private landowners to follow modern Silva cultural methods and achieve significant advancement in statewide yield of forest products.

Landowners have seen forest land as a non-producing asset for many years. Selling off just enough high grade timber to pay the taxes every couple of years has become routine. State and County legislative bodies have recognized that forest land is less commercially productive. The tax rates for forest land are kept low in deference to the economic realities ( If there are no markets for the trees, and no better use for the land, then it is unfair to tax these lands to high).

Because of all the hyperbole, it is not easy to discover what is really happening out there on the land. Recent figures produced by the Division of Forestry in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, suggest that the nature of the Tennessee forest has not changed materially since the advent of the chip mill. In fact, in spite of urbanization in many areas of the state, Tennessee has had a net increase in the forest acreage in the past 10 years. This is in part attributable to the conversion of marginal farm land to forest land.

It is well established that clear-cutting can have an adverse effect on the water quality of adjacent streams (siltation). This effect can be long term and sometimes is not easily reversible. It is well established that siltation can be avoided and or mitigated by following the best management practices. It seem to me that the water quality of the state is too important to just ” leave it to chance” whether a timber harvesting operation fouls the water. The Silva cultural exception to the Clean Water Act should be repealed by the legislature. Clear cutting should be by permit only and surety bonds should be required of all operators.

I would observe, that while there are areas of the state which are so environmentally fragile as to preclude modern forest yield management: They are few. The Department of Conservation and Environment does an excellent job of identifying areas which are critical habitat for rare and endangered plant and animal species. The state, together with local government planning agencies should be involved in identification of these areas and legislating their protection. Lets call them “Areas Unsuitable for Forest Production”.

With these fragile lands set aside and with adequate regulations, it would be contrary to the interests of the state taxpayer and the state economy to place other privately held forest land off limits to modern forest management. While clear cutting is admittedly ugly, the preservation of the viewscape of Tennessee is too ethereal to be grasped and or accepted (or funded) as public policy. Clear cutting is not wasteful ‘per se’. In fact it can lead to higher quality forests, which can produce sustained and renewable yields for centuries to come.

The issue of what to do with publicly held State Forest land in another question entirely. The public should involve itself in this discussion. If environmental advocates seek to put lands off limits to clear cutting and plantation style tree farming, over 100,000 acres could be set aside in one fell swoop by the transfer of ownership of the State owned forests to the Division of State Parks.

I believe:

1.Tennessee should act quickly to protect the quality of our water by eliminating the forestry exception to the Clean Water Act.

2. Clear-cutting should be by PERMIT only

3. Most, if not all, of the present State Forest Land should be transferred to the Division of Parks and Recreation.

The Conservationist and the Christmas Tree

Yesterday ( December 5, 2001 ) I had a Social Security Hearing in Winchester, Tennessee. It was a beautiful day and the drive to this rural town in Franklin County was delightful.

After the conclusion of my hearing I took advantage of my proximity to McMinnville, Tennessee ( the nursery capital of the South ) and took a little side trip to purchase some trees. I have been to McMinnville many times and I am always impressed with the thriving nursery business there. I purchased a couple Leland Cypress trees in 3 gallon pots, which Beth plans to use as a table top Christmas tree. Just for fun I bought a holly called “sky-pencil” holly, just to have something unusual. These will wind up planted in the yard after Christmas.

Of course, with it being the Christmas season, there were all kinds of Christmas Trees for sale. Some “cut” trees and some balled and burlap trees ( that means with the root and suitable for planting in the yard after using it as a Christmas tree).

We moved into our house in fall of 1983. Since that time we have planted numerous trees and bushes which were Christmas trees. Our first tree was a White Pine and it lives now in our front yard. I have a picture of Beth next to the tree when we planted it, it was about her height. Five feet, two inches. Today the tree is 50 feet tall!! It shades our house from the hot afternoon sun in the Summer time. The border of our property has Hemlock trees which were our present to the house one year. The back line has a collection of White Pine trees of varying ages, representing several holidays. Not all the trees we planted survived, but most did.

I must say that each year at Christmas I am disappointed to see some many trees cut, used for a couple of weeks, then thrown in the mulch pile, or shredded to make trail surface for the parks. This seems wasteful to me. True, it does require a little planning and a little effort to use a live and plant able tree. But, I think, a considerable amount of effort and energy goes into the production of trees for Christmas. It is an entire industry. Only to have nothing remaining is a great waste of energy.

I suppose that there is very little we can do if private people choose to be wasteful. However, people who feel that they are Conservationists should be intentional in their celebration of the season.

From a public policy prospective, The State of Tennessee, Division of Forestry sells White Pine and other seedlings from its new tree nursery at Polk County. Seedlings are propagated and made available to the private landowners for reforestation. This is a good thing. Trees are made available to our nursery industry for liner stock and to the timber industry for wood production. Unfortunately seedlings are also made available to the Christmas Tree growing industry, this is wasteful. It seems to me that in the reforestation of Tennessee, we do not have trees to spare! These State subsidized trees need to end up in the forest or in our cities and towns rather then on the trash heep.

Proliferation of Exotic Plant and Animal Species in Tennessee:

The common pigeon is perhaps the best illustration of the problem. I suppose that everyone would agree that they are a nuisance. At the same time they have been with us for so long that we have come to expect their presence. The reality is that the pigeon is not a native species in North America. It is native to the Mediterranean. A cliff dwelling bird in its natural habitat, it has adapted to living on widow sills and ledges in large and small towns alike. They are a documented vector of disease, and cost us a many millions of dollars in building and park maintenance each year.

Other animal species are noted : The European Wild Boar, which has proliferated in the Appalachian region. (I have seen places in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which appear as if a small bulldozer had been working in the area).

In the plant world the examples are much more numerous.

Almost anyone who lives in the South has seen roadsides covered with Kudzu, a Korean species originally imported to North America for use in soil conservation. This vine grows quickly and overtops native trees, smothering out all other plant life. Presently in covers several thousand acres of one of our State Forests, Natchez Trace.

Another pernicious example is the Nodding Thistle, which can be seen in abundance along Tennessee highways. It has a purple top and thorns. The thorns cause problems for livestock when the plants find their way into straw and hay bales which are use as animal feed.

Certain more familiar plant species are equally problematical. The Honeysuckle Bush, Honeysuckle Vine, Mimosa Tree, Privet Hedge and Euonymus Vine are the main offenders in Urban neighborhoods and forests. Each of these plant types are prolific producers of seed. Which seed is, in turn, spread by birds over large areas. Left unchecked they quickly spread and become a dominant species on the landscape.

At Radnor Lake State Park and Warner Park (City of Nashville) extraordinary measures are being taken to eradicate these species, so that native species can thrive. It will take many years to rid the parks of these pests. Additionally, the effort will be futile unless the community as a whole curtails the use of these species in household landscapes.

For more information on this topic check out the website of the Tennessee Exotic Pest Council,

Action Steps:

1. Be sure your own property is free from plant pests
2. Talk to your neighbors and neighborhood associations
3. Write the mayor and tell him that you want pigeons and non-native plants species to be closely controlled and removed if at all possible.
4. Volunteer to assist the City and State Parks Divisions in their efforts to eradicate non-native pests from the Parks and other public land
5. Try to incorporate Tennessee native plant species in your household landscape.