Fact sheet from "What Have We Done?,
The Foundation for Global Sustainability's State of the Bioregion Report for the Upper Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachian Mountains."
How long shall the land mourn, and the herbs of every field wither, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein? The beasts are consumed, and the birds; because they said, He shall not see our last end.
If a Tree Falls
Like a huge lawnmower, industrial forestry has swept across the United States leveling forests and leaving behind depleted soils, erosion, and floods. Almost all of the Eastern forests were gone by 1930, and the machine shifted to the Rockies as well as the Northwest. Once those forests were almost gone (remember the spotted owl controversy?), the machine turned its hungry saws toward the Southeast, which had finally begun to heal from its destruction earlier in the century. Industrial forestry is one of the greatest threats to the diversity of life in Southern Appalachia.
Chip mills strip logs of bark and grind them into pulp for paper and particle board products. They required dozens of acres of trees per day and may operate around the clock. In their wake, chip mills leave scarred earth, vanished wildlife, flooded streams, and broken promises of lasting jobs.
Because they cut the Pacific Northwest at rates much faster than regrowth rates, chip mill companies are converging on the Southern Appalachian forests at an alarming rate. Champion International has a large mill in Waynesville, NC and another in Caryville, TN (forty miles north of Knoxville). This mill will grind up tens of thousands of acres of trees from Campbell, Scott, and Anderson Counties. A slick advertising campaign by Champion does not change the fact that they clearcut 800,000 acres of Montana forests at three times the rate of growth. Expect no better here.
One success story lies near Chattanooga in South Pittsburgh, where three mills wanted to build barge terminals. Environmental activists, the media, and the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce joined together in opposition of the mills and managed to force TVA to do an impact study which refused the permits. Not everyone has been as lucky; large mills are located in Waynesville, NC, Chattanooga, Kingsport, Union Mills, NC, and Spring City, TN.
The Claims of Industrial Forestry
1. Tree growth exceeds the rate of cutting in this region. This claim is NOT TRUE for high quality saw timber, pines, or for the sourcing areas of existing chip mills. Adding more mills to the mix will only hurt the problem.
2. We know more about forest abuse and will follow a voluntary code of Best Management Practices (BMPs). BMPs were designed to reduce erosion and other negative impacts of forestry. However, a TVA study showed that even if BMPs are followed (a big if), wildlife, karst features, water quality, aquatic life, endangered species, archaeology, and aesthetics would still be damaged by intensified cutting. Champion flagrantly violated BMP codes in Campbell County but received only a notice of violation. As more companies compete for fewer, less accessible resources, violations will probably increase.
3. Forestry is merely agriculture with trees as harvestable crops. NOT TRUE, since industrial foresters forget the primary rule of agriculture: give back what you take. By extracting trees which would normally decay and give their nutrients back into the forest soil, clearcutting always results in a rapid loss of nutrients and soil (even if the harvesters add fertilizer, which they rarely do). Clearcut areas typically heal somewhat in fifty or sixty years (if allowed to regrow naturally, which is rare). Studies have shown that even these reclaimed areas are consistently lower in diversity and understory than uncut areas.
4. Clearcutting is better than high-grading. High-grading, which removes only the biggest, healthiest trees and leaves behind weak, diseased forests, has indeed damaged our area. The remaining low-grade forests may not be viable economically, but they provide habitat for numerous species, enrich the soil, clean the air and water, and provide a lovely cover of green on our hills which attract tourists.
Instead of allowing clearcuts to be reclaimed by nature, many corporations douse them with herbicides and turn them in to pine plantations. The resulting loss of biodiversity is catastrophic. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, for example, requires old-growth (100 years or older) forests for survival. It will disappear with our trees as well as many species of understory plants and flowers.
Probably the most environmentally sustainable method of tree removal in our area would be low-grading using horse and manpower rather than soil-compacting machines. Removing only nonnative, weak, or deformed trees to grind into pulp would be much better than razing an entire region of all wildlife. However, short-term market demands and wasteful paper-use and packaging processes push environmental concerns aside. Individual decisions to use recycled paper and fewer wood products will help push the market to act more sustainably.
Industrial forestry does not just work on public land. Even government land such as Cherokee National Forest is subject extractive industry; only 10.6% of the Cherokee National Forest is permanently protected. However, the greatest percentage of forestry occurs on private land. Individuals hold 73.2% of the region's timberland, so an environmental ethic among the public is strikingly important.
The Wounds of Development
Forests in the area have also been besieged by mining, road-building, development, and damming of rivers. Copper Basin, a thirty-thousand acre depression in southeastern Tennessee, is the most extreme example of such damage. After mineral and copper extraction, the fifty-square mile, formerly forested region was literally turned into a desert devoid of vegetation, with red, baked clay. All of the aquatic life in the Ocoee River watershed was exterminated.
Roads are also extremely destructive. Construction causes erosion, more traffic, polluted air, and development which brings along even more concrete and asphalt to replace natural areas.
Dams have deluged prime farm and forestland. Artificial control of water levels contrary to natural cycles have created mud flats with little ecological function.
Prevention of forest fires has caused problems for some tree species. The table mountain pine requires fire to reproduce, and oak trees benefit by the occasional fire. Fire suppression results in a shift in forest composition from oak to beech and maple, which has ramifying effects because many species depend on acorns as food.
Humans have a history of destroying wildlife in the Upper Tennessee Valley. In 10,000 B.C. the Paleo-Indians were well established here, and it is thought that the mass extinction of such creatures as the mastodon, the horse, the camel, and bison around that time was probably due to overhunting. In the 1700s, woodland bison were driven to extinction, and white-tailed deer were nearly extirpated. Elk were hunted to extinction in this region by the time of the Civil War.
Deer have come back with such numbers that hunting by man is necessary to keep them under control. Natural predators such as wolves and mountain lions have been eliminated, and with no other check populations would grow too large, destroying wild flora and ravaging crops.
Both red and gray wolves were exterminated by 1920, and it is thought that the mountain lion is gone as well. Black bears almost died out, but about 500 live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park today. The list of extinctions goes on, ranging from otters to squirrels to bats. Some species are not technically extinct, but they are present in extremely low numbers that are impossible to revive given the amount of habitat destruction and environmental degradation in the area.
The banning of DDT and hunting restrictions both have done much to preserve bird populations in the bioregion. Bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons, and great blue herons are all now in the area thanks to breeding programs and the elimination of DDT. A peregrine falcon has recently taken up residence in downtown Knoxville to dine on urban pigeons.
Saved because of strict hunting regulations, wild turkeys, and giant Canada geese, have all been returned to the Tennessee Valley. Hunting and logging had driven wood ducks close to extinction, but careful management and erection of nesting boxes have brought them back.
The most notable extinctions in our area were of the Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon in 1914, the latter having been the most abundant bird in the world at one point.
The greatest dangers to birds today are roads, suburban development, and clearcutting. For example, birds such as bluebirds, barn owls, and woodpeckers are all in decline because clearcutting removes the old and dying trees in which they nest. Roads and development remove habitat and introduce predators such as cats and dogs.
The worldwide decline in songbirds is evident here as well. This is partially due to the destruction of habitat in the tropics, where they spend their summers. In the tropics the birds also encounter DDT, which is still sold by American chemical companies despite the ban on domestic use. The birds' habitat in our bioregion as well as in the north is being destroyed as well, which does not bode well for the many Southern Appalachian species now in decline.
Loss of spruce-fir forests will probably also cause the disappearance of numerous bird species such as the saw-whet owl and olive-sided flycatcher.
Some species such as crows, pigeons, and robins have actually increased because of their adaptability to human environments and foraging in our waste and roadkill.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an important area for salamander diversity. Clearcutting devastates salamanders which require shade, moisture, and cool soil. Salamanders and other amphibians are sensitive to road building and mining, which expose acidic and toxic leachate from the rocks into waterways.
Tennessee has over 300 species of fish, the greatest diversity of any state in the nation. Damming has caused the disappearance from our region of large lake sturgeon, shovelnose sturgeon, and muskellunge (the latter, which can still be caught in some lakes are not the native variety, but stocked individuals from the north).
It is the smaller, less-noticed fish that are more susceptible to human intrusions. Many can only reproduce on clean, clear bottoms and are thus susceptible to silt. Numerous species have disappeared from many of their known habitats and some may be extinct. In an effort to increase game fish, managing agencies such as the US Fish and Wildlife Service and TVA have often ignored the needs of native fish and introduced numerous nonnative species. For example, every living thing in a fourteen-mile stretch of Abrams Creek was poisoned in 1957 to make way for game fish.
Nonnative carp now inhabit Tennessee's reservoirs and waterways. They outcompete other fish with their tolerance of turbid (cloudy) water and low dissolved oxygen,.
The only native trout in the region, the brook trout, has been in decline since 1900 because of siltation and warming of creeks (from clearcutting) and competition from introduced rainbow and brown trout. It may be headed toward extinction in our region.
Mussels and Snails
The Tennessee River Valley has the largest diversity of freshwater mussels in the world. Dams, siltation, and and pollution have attacked the mussel and snail populations and many species are clinging to life in small, endangered communities. Of the existing 79 species, 35 are on the federal threatened and endangered species list.
The introduction of the zebra mussel, a destructive Russian invader, will accellerate the decline of native species. In less than ten years after their introduction in Lake Erie, zebra mussels were present in numbers such as 100,000 per square meter of lake bottom. They clog intake pipes, build colonies on top of other mussels, deplete algae, and crowd gravel beds. Other fish and aquatic wildlife suffer as a result.
The Homogenization of Nature
Increased travel and commerce around the world have led to a global problem of homogenization. The zebra mussel is one such example of a destructive invader which prospers because of lack of native predators in a new area. Plants, animals, and diseases are being spread around the world and are extirpating native species.
English sparrows and starlings, some of the most numerous birds in America, were introduced from England. Wild hogs which are uprooting flora in the Smokies are a gift from Europe, and bluegrass is from Great Britain. Carp come from Eurasia, and mimosa and princess trees come from Asia.
The most famous Japanese invader, kudzu, was actually deliberately introduced to control erosion (for which it proved ineffective) and fertilize and loosen the soil of overworked farms. Obviously, it has gotten out of control, strangling all plants from tiny mosses to tall trees on disturbed land.
Other destructive invaders include the Chinese chestnut blight, which has killed virtually all of the chestnut trees in the Smokies, and the gypsy moth, which preys on oak leaves and is moving into our region from the north. The balsam woody adelgid from Europe has killed 91% of the mature Fraser firs in the Smokies, a destruction which will cause major ecological ramifications due to the interconnectedness of forest species.
It is as if we have thrown all the world's species in a blender and turned it on, mixing diseases, parasites, predators, and competitors from around the world and letting them loose. Delicate, unique, and rare species are too fragile to survive this treatment and are being lost at an alarming rate. The list of endangered and threatened species in the Tennessee River Basin and Southern Appalachian Mountains is too long to enumerate here; the official list is more than 100 species.