Threat to Cumberland Plateau

Chattanooga Times Free Press

Forest advocates for years have issued warnings against the rampant clear-cutting of Tennessee's once-rich hardwood forests on the Cumberland Plateau, and the increasing conversion of harvested forests to mono-culture pine plantations. At risk is not only a unique forest ecology, but also a sustainable source of oak and other hardwoods that long has made Tennessee the nation's leading producer of hardwood flooring, and the beneficiary of a range of value-added furniture and wood-products industries. State officials and the industrialized wood-chipping industries continue to refute the threat to the Cumberland Plateau's deciduous forests, but a new two-year study commissioned by the EPA confirms the warnings.

His is a chilling analysis, one that confirms the specter of the sort of ecological pillage and resource depletion more commonly seen in Third World countries.

Indeed, Dr. Evans' study reveals a lot of similarity. Just as dense tropical forests exist on thin soil and are nearly impossible to restore once they are clear-cut, the Cumberland Plateau's deciduous forests have evolved on similarly thin, sandy soils. If the forests are clear-cut and converted to pine plantations, they require fertilizers and herbicides to achieve industrial harvest goals. Ultimately, pine crops strip the soil of nutrients over several cycles of growth and harvesting, requiring heavier use of chemicals over time to grow pines, until the soil finally no longer support pines -- or the original native deciduous forests.

State and industry forest officials refuted the findings of Dr. Evans' team regarding the adjacent seven-county Cumberland Plateau area, arguing essentially that "a forest is a forest". They cite the abundance of wild turkey and deer found in the pine plantations, for example, and deny that burgeoning pine plantations destroy habitat for, or endanger, native species.

For anyone who regularly visits pine plantations and clear-cuts, their argument rings hollow and defensive. True, deer and wild turkey pass through pine plantations, but they are overly abundant here, and they usually roam as well into adjacent deciduous forests, which usually are larger. Dr. Evans' study, moreover, confirms that the numbers and variety of native animals and plants are greatly diminished in pine plantations. And the larger question is what will happen as pine plantations consume more and more of the original forests.

Beyond that, state officials have yet to say anything about the advance of industrial clear-cutting over the more sustainable, selective harvesting practices that have allowed the Cumberland Plateau to supply the value-added hardwood industries and the numerous, better-paying jobs they support. If the state had any interest in keeping those more important, value-added jobs, it would stop permitting -- and subsidizing -- the entry of new chip-using plants that are accelerating the loss of the deciduous forests and endangering the economies of the small towns on the plateau.

In fact, state officials and Tennessee's Agricultural Department, which oversees state forestry, is in thrall to the industrial logging and chip-using industries and isn't watching out for the hardwood-based industries and the communities that rely on them. Until that changes, the Cumberland Plateau's valuable deciduous forests will continue to diminish rapidly.


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