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.