The forests of the Southeast have prospered since before the last ice age, spilling over riverbanks and mountaintops in warm and wet conditions, producing one of the planet’s richest hotspots of biodiversity. Alligators, black bears, bobcats and other wildlife roam the forests, which cover 200 million acres from Virginia to eastern Texas to Florida.
Those forests are also home to hallmark hardwood trees, from bald cypresses to southern live oaks, flowering dogwoods, red maples, water tupelo and Atlantic white cedar. But to the forestry industry, trees are lumped into two categories: hardwoods and pines.
Treated with pesticides, loblolly pines grow on plantations where natural hardwood forests once grew. The best pines become utility poles. Small and crooked ones, called pulpwood, can become paper or building products. Now, they can also become wood pellets.
Hardwoods are treasured because they’re native, fostering the forest wildlife that evolved with them. They grow in the understories of pine plantations. They also flourish on private lands that haven’t been planted with pine or vegetable crops or turned into strip malls. Cypresses and other species anchor swampy wetlands. When logged, the finest hardwoods are turned into furniture.
And it’s hardwoods that are making up the bulk of many of the wood pellet shipments that are being shipped overseas to burn for electricity. That’s not just bad news for natural forests and their ecosystems — it also exacerbates climate change.
Hardwood forests in the Southeast can take a long time to recover; they grow much more slowly than pine. Pound for pound, these hardwoods take longer than pine to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, making the climate impacts worse when they’re chopped down and incinerated. To reduce competition with the fluff pulp mill industry — which uses pines to produce the absorbent materials used in everything from diapers to toilet paper and tampons — wood pellet mills across the region are using hardwoods, indifferent to their role in the environment.
The pellets from Enviva’s mill are roughly 90 percent hardwood, despite the town of Franklin being surrounded by pine plantations.
“The Southeast U.S. is a tree farm,” said Matthew Hansen, a geography professor at the University of Maryland. He led research that used satellite data from 2000 to 2012 that found logging was four times more disruptive in the forests of the Southeast than in South American rainforests. Almost a third of Southeastern forestland was either cut down or regrown during the 12 years studied.1 “It stands out globally. This is super-intensive use.”
Drax Sources Mostly Whole Trees in the U.S. Wood Pellets
1. Hansen et al. (2013) High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change.Source
Many of the hardwood forests being clear-cut in the Southeast now are 40 to 100 years old. Logging for timber and paper increased here in the 1990s when mills were shuttered in the Pacific Northwest after owl habitats received federal protection. No other country or U.S. region produces more wood and pulp every year than the Southeast, where loggers are cutting down roughly twice as many trees as they were in the 1950s.2
“These forests haven’t been conservation priorities for some of the big national conservation groups,” said Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecology professor at Duke University. He worked on mapping research, published in March in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that identified a “mismatch” in the U.S. between the vast acreage dedicated to parks and other protected areas in the West, and the unprotected Southeast, which needs the parks most3. “The biological reality is that the Southeast is extremely important.”
Further fueling the boom, some U.S. states are offering tax breaks and other enticements to lure the wood pellet mills. “It’s like the movie industry — they offer all sorts of incentives and subsidies,” said Louisiana State University agriculture professor Richard Vlosky, who specializes in wood-based products. Government support for pellet mills makes it harder for other members of the American Forest & Paper Association to compete for tree trunks and wood chips, pushing up prices. Those companies, which include chipboard and particleboard manufacturers, say that creates an uneven playing field.
2. U.S. Forest Service data shows 186 million cubic meters of timber was harvested in the Southeast in 2011 — about 60 percent of the U.S. total. In that same year, U.N. data shows Canada, Brazil and China each harvested 140 to 150 million cubic meters.
3. Jenkins et al. (2015) US protected lands mismatch biodiversity priorities. Source
No other country or U.S. region produces more wood and pulp every year than the Southeast
As the wood pellet industry expands across a widening swath of the country, forest owners face few regulatory hurdles in managing their forests and selling to the mills as they see fit. With some exceptions, such as those that shelter endangered species, the forests providing most of the wood pellets being burned in Europe lack meaningful protections from any local, state or federal agencies. In the U.S., state governments and federal agencies largely view trees as crops.
Most of the forests in the Southeast grow on privately owned land. In the American West, more than two-thirds of forestland is publicly owned, according to U.S. Forest Service researchers, but in the nation’s east, 80 percent of forests are owned by families and corporations.
That leaves tremendous swaths of wetlands and forests throughout the Southeast vulnerable to economic trends and to the whims of their owners. Nationally, more than 20 million people own — and control the fate of — an average of 25 acres of forest apiece.
The targeting of hardwoods for wood pellets frustrates groups that have been working to protect and restore the region’s native swamps, groves and forests. “We need to be scaling up forest protections,” said Danna Smith, executive director of the Dogwood Alliance.
Foresters and groups such as Tenny’s see increased demand for wood as boons for forest health. Logging provides revenues that can be used to manage land, they say, and property owners are less likely to convert their land to parking lots if a market for wood is strong.
Conservationists and ecologists deride that perspective. “Markets that drive logging create incentives for landowners to manage forests for short-term commercial purposes,” Smith said. “Not for long-term ecological sustainability.”