Pine plantations overshadow forests

By Kathy Gilbert

Staff Writer Chattanooga Times Free Press

Pine plantations are responsible for the loss of at least one-tenth of the native forests on the southern Cumberland Plateau over the past 20 years, according to a new federal study.

The two-year study, commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, challenges a recent U.S. Forest Service report.

"The Cumberland Plateau is the most important conservation challenge in the United States right now," said Dr. Jonathan Evans, lead investigator for the seven-county Plateau study and assistant professor of biology at the University of the South.

The difference in the studies centers on the definition of forest. In the Cumberland Plateau study, forests do not include pine plantations. In the Forest Service's assessment, any trees in a group, including pine farms, are considered forest.

"It is all semantics," said Jim Brown, executive director of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and a former state forester. "One takes the very strict view a forest can only be naturally occurring, and the other view is equally strict that anything with a tree cover on it is a forest. They're both right."

Industry officials said their view was best.

Dr. Evans disagreed, saying that's not true of all animals.

Dr. Evans' two-year, $195,000, first-ever study was done by a team of researchers at the University of the South's Landscape Analysis Lab. Results will be posted on the lab's Web site,, some time after EPA review on Feb. 13, Dr. Evans said.

In the university study, satellite and aerial photographs of Bledsoe, Franklin, Marion, Grundy, Sequatchie, Van Buren and Warren counties were analyzed with computer mapping software, he said. Bird and insect populations were counted around the area, and a privately funded socioeconomic study tracked the effects of pine conversion on local economies.

Dr. Evans said pine plantations destroy the native forest, killing off many unique and threatened animal and plant species. When pine plantations are created, native forest lands are clearcut, treated with herbicides and replanted with dense stands of Loblolly pine, he said. After only a few years, the trees are tall enough to create deep shade in which few species can thrive, Dr. Evans said.

After only two cycles of pine planting and logging -- about 40 to 60 years from now -- the area's naturally sandy, low-fertility soil will be drained of life, he said.

In the new study, pine farms were found to support only about half the bird species found in the plateau's native oak-hickory forests, according to Dr. Evans' co-investigator David Haskell, an assistant professor at the university.

Such sweeping landscape change could lead to climate change, Dr. Evans said.

Finally, pine plantations plunder the land for out-of-town companies and give little back to communities in return, Dr. Evans said.

"It's not a whole lot different from strip mines," he said. "The economic investment by people taking out that resource is not very great."

State forestry officials, though, maintain pine plantations are keeping the Cumberland Plateau in good shape.

Timber and paper industry executives agreed.

"When attacks are made on pine plantations such as Mr. Evans has done, you place an unequal value on various species," said Tracy O'Neill, legislative communications director for the Tennessee Forestry Association. "Mr. Evans admits sustainable forestry practices help deer and quail, but yet claims forest management techniques are equal to strip mining. That couldn't be further from the truth."

Mr. Klein said the increase in pine plantations has led to the return of "a lot of species that were threatened and endangered. Like the wild turkey, and the whitetailed deer, which are now present in huge numbers."

But deer and turkey are overpopulated, even threatening the ecological health of southern Franklin County, Dr. Evans said.

He said deer and turkey thrive at the expense of other native Cumberland Plateau species. For instance, many plants created unique ways of surviving in the sandy, poor soils of the Plateau, he said. "There are so many species that can grow here under extremely harsh conditions where a tomato would die," Dr. Evans said. "All interacting and forming a web unique to Southern forests."

That genetic heritage is greatly threatened by the influx of pine farms, he said.

Still, industry and state officials said pine plantations essentially are the same as native forests.

"The idea that native species and fungi and wildlife are driven from these areas is ludicrous," Mr. Klein said. "He (Dr. Evans) ought to spend some time in these forests, because that's what they are, is forests. You're as likely to see any kind of wildlife there as in a state park or something like that."


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