As the Forests Have Changed, So Have Residents’ Lives

With virtually no laws governing forest practices in Tennessee, timber companies have been free to clearcut hundreds of thousands of acres of native forest on the Cumberland Plateau, replacing them with loblolly pine plantations. Photos courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

“Our forests are something we should be proud of… I don’t understand why people are letting this happen” says Andree Maddox whose land near McMinnville, Tennessee, is bordered by timber industry lands that have been clearcut. Photo by Caitlin Sullivan.

“Our forests are something we should be proud of,” said Andree Maddox in her McMinnville, Tennessee, home, “So, I don’t understand why people are letting this happen.”

An armchair coddles her small thin body and soft crooked hands. Her voice competes with the cacophony of yelps from 13 dogs she rescued at a closing animal shelter. Maddox is referring to the lakes and rivers of deforested land left barren or converted to pine plantations on the Cumberland Plateau.

One day six years ago Maddox saw logging trucks driving down the road to her five-acre property on Harrison Ferry Mountain in southern Tennessee. She followed the trucks and found that her “neighbor” was actually a timber company and that the 4,300 acres of land behind her property were in the process of being clear-cut. Her discovery catalyzed her involvement in preserving the Plateau.

Steeped in environmental and cultural heritage, the Cumberland Plateau rests between the flatlands of the Midwest and mountains of the East. The western ridges of the Appalachian Mountains melt into this six million acre region that spans portions of six states, from West Virginia and Kentucky through Tennessee to Alabama. The Plateau is a habitat for some of the densest, oldest and most diverse woods in the nation, with over 175 different trees and a wide variety of wildlife. But there is little protected land on the Cumberland Plateau and much of the land is owned by large timber companies that have been cutting away at the forests for the past five decades and replacing them with pine plantations. And so, with the many precious resources of the Plateau comes the complicated controversy between timber companies and their neighbors.

Maddox’s neighbor, Susan Oliver, was raised in the McMinnville area and remembers standing in the road that now separates her property from that of the timber company. She would spin around in circles and the forest on either side of the road was so thick she couldn’t distinguish between the two properties. Not only did Oliver watch local creeks and land become polluted, but she says the birds, wildlife, and Monkey Faced Orchids disappeared with the trees.

Although both the timber industry and people living on the Plateau agree that logging is necessary to supply the vast demand for paper products, there is a widening gulf in opinions about how the companies should go about managing forests. As the expansion of timber harvest on the Plateau has increased within the last five years, so have the number of people affected. In the heart of the Plateau in Tennessee, people living alongside timber industry land have fought for sustainable logging for years. Largely without support from local politicians and community members, they fight to protect not only the diversity of trees and wildlife but the local economy as well.

In northern Tennessee, Margie Taulbee is co-chair of the Forest Division of the grassroots organization Save Our Cumberland Mountain (SOCM) made up of 2,500 members, most of whom reside in Tennessee. She lives near a clear-cut and, like most on the Plateau, Taulbee agrees that logging is necessary: “It’s clear-cutting and replanting pine plantations that’s ruining the land.”

“They can make their profit, but even businesses need to be held accountable for a healthy environment,” Says Talbee. “If logging is indeed part of the economy of this area then it needs to be done responsibly.”

And indeed, the tides may be shifting toward a more sustainable future for the Plateau. The largest paper producer and landowner in the South, Bowater Inc., recently agreed to modify its logging practices. Though the non-profit organizations Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and Dogwood Alliance are at the forefront of the Memorandum of Understanding, it has taken years of dedicated individuals working in their respective communities to achieve this milestone.

For Taulbee of SOCM, the Bowater agreement reminded her why she’s been working so hard for a sustainable Plateau. “I feel like its part of the reason why I’m here,” she said. “If someone doesn’t step up to bat then this area is not only going to be poor but stay poor.”

The timber industry has owned land on the Plateau for the past five decades, but has accelerated the practice of clear-cutting native forests and replanting pine monocultures over the last 5 years, according to a report conducted by Dr. Jon Evans, an associate professor and the director of the Landscape Analysis Laboratory at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. On the Plateau, some of the last remaining stands of virgin hardwood forest are being replaced with non-native Loblolly pine plantations. But these fast-growing pines have turned out to be a bad bet economically because they are very susceptible to pine beetle infestations. Evans found that among other drawbacks, the plantations cause erosion, have increased susceptibility to blight, and require chemical spraying to maintain the monoculture.

According to Evans, on the 614,000 acres in southern Tennessee researched for the report 57 percent of land is owned by non-residents. The absentee landowners affect local economy by reducing access to land and thus reducing job opportunities in recreation and tourism.

Bud Howell, campaign director for Dogwood Alliance, echoes Evans’ concern about the recreation and tourism economy. The forests and the natural beauty of the landscape are the backbone to the Plateau’s recreation and tourism economy, and thus, their destruction jeopardizes the stability and future productivity of the region’s economy.

“On one hand the timber industry makes use of the Plateau’s natural landscape and resources but on the other hand the industry puts and invests a relatively tiny amount back into the local economy,” Howell said. He maintains that highly mechanized clear-cutting and the intensive use of toxic chemicals on pine plantations is passing on huge long-term costs such as loss of jobs in the local hardwood and saw mill industry, and health hazards and medical problems to citizens all around the Plateau.

Timber company lands used to be available to locals for hunting, but as the forest is cut and converted hunting becomes more difficult. Oliver of McMinnville remembers going hunting as a child, but she says this is no longer possible. “I hardly ever see any animals anymore,” she said. “I would walk for miles every day as a kid into the woods to go hunting, and now because of clear-cutting and spraying nothing lives in the pines.”

Professor Evans says this depletion of forest forfeits the value of the land. “The forest is the largest endowment for the people that live on the Cumberland Plateau,” he said. “When you lose forest you lose the possibility for tourism, hunting, or sustainable logging practices for their grandchildren.”

Despite the losses to local land and community, Taulbee, Maddox, and Oliver found it hard at first to rally people around the daunting fight against a timber company. Nevertheless, these residents took on the fight without the resources and support of large regional and national organizations. But it was two years ago that Oliver decided she had had enough with the lack of support, inactivity, and bureaucracy of local government.

For two years Oliver fought to preserve the land across from her property. She contacted politicians all around the area, joined SOCM and wrote three reports to the EPA regarding the timber company’s poor environmental practices, but with no avail.

“If there was the tiniest bit of interest it would have kept me going,” she said. “But I got nothing for tromping through mud up to my thighs, thick swarms of mosquitoes and writing reports, things the government should have been investigating. If it’s not directly in their face it’s forgotten and until the sprayed stream ends up in the valley, nobody around here will care.”

Though perhaps two years too late for Oliver, through the campaign efforts of the NRDC and Dogwood Alliance, on June 29 Bowater finally signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will end most of the pine conversion on the plateau in addition to protecting endangered forests and homes and communities near major timber operations. The agreement gives Bowater approximately three years to end conversion of natural hardwood forests to pine plantations on all of its land in the U.S. and adopt a 300 foot buffer zone for any spraying around communities and sensitive areas.

Founder and Policy Director of Dogwood Alliance Danna Smith believes that Bowater will live up to its commitment but maintains that the Dogwood Alliance will still need to diligently monitor Bowater’s progress. As the leading paper producer, Smith hopes that Bowater will set an example in the timber industry.

“Other large companies in the South such as International Paper and Weyerhaeuser must follow Bowater’s lead with this policy and go beyond the industry’s weak environmental standards,” said Howell of Dogwood Alliance. “Since most disposable paper products can be made with recycled content, we have prompted companies such as the Warner Music Group and other large paper buyers to demand products made with higher recycled content and without virgin fiber from the Cumberland Plateau.”

Taulbee of SOCM sees the Bowater agreement as a huge first step. “It’s good to get your foot in the door,” she said. “As consumers, we are why they continually and aggressively cut hardwood timber and turn it into pine plantations. So it’s going to take ugly clear-cuts going all the way down to the main highway for people to look at before the majority of people living on the Cumberland Plateau actually realize that they have to do something to stop this.”

For Maddox, the Bowater agreement has kept her motivated. “I never realized what a difference getting involved could make,” she said. “It taught me that as a concerned citizen I could do something. That there are people out there and changes being made.”
Professor Evans says that residents of the Plateau gain strength in unity. “There is a need for the people of the Plateau to rally as a region, not just in their local areas, so they have a greater voice to craft their own future and to brand the Plateau as a place people want to go,” he said.

But that takes time and so individual residents are continuing to work with local collaboratives and inform their communities even if it’s done one person at a time. It is the lives of these people that are not seen from the boardroom windows or government offices but who endure, along with the land, the lasting effects of the timber industry.
“It feels like I’m stepping onto the battle of Gettysburg,” Maddox says as she stands amidst brush and old bulldozer tracks.

It was the first time she stood on the land since the trees were cut six years ago. She looks around in the thick fog at the forest that once was and the small stubble that is beginning to grow back. Living with the fear of getting sick from chemical spraying and relatively independent of her family, friends, neighbors, or local politicians, she stands in solidarity with the many others scattered over the region that continue to believe in a more sustainable future for the Cumberland Plateau.


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