Conservationists, Industry Reach Historic Agreement to Protect Forests on the Cumberland Plateau

The practice of converting hardwood forests to pine plantations has long been criticized by scientists and conservationists in the Southeast who maintain that pine monocultures fail to provide adequate habitat for wildlife, fail to protect water quality as a natural forest would, and require heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. Photo courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

John Adams (right), President, and Allen Hershkowitz (left), Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council. They were two of the chief negotiators of the agreement with Bowater to improve forestry practices on the Cumberland Plateau. Photo courtesy Natural Resources Defense Council.

This Bowater facility in Calhoun, Tennessee, is one of several pulp and paper plants owned by the company on the Cumberland Plateau. Bowater is the first corporation to reach an agreement with conservationists to protect native forests on the Cumberland Plateau. Photo by Kent Kessinger.

The Cumberland Plateau has been turning heads lately. Not since Daniel Boone began leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap, the nation’s first route west through the Appalachian Mountains, has the region received this much attention. Beloved by generations of Southerners, the Cumberland Plateau is now recognized across the country not only as a national treasure, but also as a region facing tremendous threats.

In 2004, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) named the Cumberland Plateau a BioGem, one of the twelve most endangered regions in the Western Hemisphere. They joined the efforts of local and regional organizations to tackle one of the biggest threats to the region, the conversion of rich native hardwood forests to sterile pine plantations for the paper industry.

In June 2005, after fifteen months of negotiations, NRDC and the Dogwood Alliance signed a landmark agreement with timber industry giant Bowater, the single biggest landowner on the Plateau. Bowater pledged to end the clearcutting and conversion of hardwood forests to pine plantations on all of the company’s land in the United States within three years, stop buying timber from pine plantations established by other landowners after 2007, limit spraying of chemicals and fertilizers, and map and protect ecologically critical areas on their lands.

Appalachian Voices executive director Mary Anne Hitt sat down at NRDC’s headquarters in New York with NRDC president John Adams and Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with NRDC who is heading up their Cumberland Plateau BioGem project. They talked about these successes and the challenges and opportunities currently facing the region.

Hitt: Why did NRDC, a large national environmental organization with considerable resources and stature, decided to focus on the Cumberland Plateau?

Adams: That’s simple. Allen is an expert on paper and garbage, and he worked with a group of experts on an analysis to determine the areas that were most important to protect from the impacts of the paper industry. The Cumberland Plateau was the highest ranking area and wasn’t getting the kind of protection that it needed. Timbering at a high level was coming to the region, chip mills were being built, the big timber companies were moving in, real estate development was ramping up, and the population was growing.
There are only three or four other places in North America that offer a comparable opportunity for protecting species and an important landscape. Considering the extraordinary biodiversity of the area, we decided that focusing on the Cumberland Plateau was the right thing for us to do.

Hershkowitz: The analysis was driven by biology and commercial pressures. We followed the science, and we followed the markets, and that’s how the BioGem boundaries were defined. There was no predetermined notion about what should be included and what shouldn’t be included.

Adams: However, I also happen to have personal ties to the region. I attended law school at Duke University and my wife is a seventh generation North Carolinian, the seventh generation on the family farm near the Nantahala National Forest. Her father was a forester, the head of the Forest Service’s Southeast Research Station in Asheville. He won a Mary Reynolds Babcock Award for his work on stopping clear cutting a decade or so ago.

Hitt: My father was the chief scientist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so I imagine they knew each other.

Adams: Without a doubt. His name was Walton Smith, and he really had a big impact on that part of the world. His daughter, my wife Patricia, was part of the founding, with Paul Carlson, of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee. So personally I was thrilled that we would be focusing on the Plateau, and that the Little Tennessee was included in the BioGem.

Hitt: How have you been received in the region?

Adams: We’ve proceeded carefully so that when we act, we act as much as possible in accordance with the feelings of local communities. We have 117,000 members in the seven states that make up the BioGem. We have a lot of support from environmental groups throughout the Southeast. Combining our resources and technical skills with the groups in the region – Dogwood Alliance, Appalachian Voices, Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), Southern Environmental Law Center, and others – makes a lot of sense to us.

Hershkowitz: We were asked to get involved in the Southeast, not only by grassroots environmentalists, but also by state legislators in Tennessee and local businesses. We bring a great deal of strength to the issues we take on, and we have a strong track record of success. We can immediately communicate to 1.2 million members, and our board of trustees and members are very dedicated and influential.

Hitt: How did that strength come into play in changing the way Bowater manages their forests on the Cumberland Plateau?

Adams: We started to work with Bowater because they were the biggest operator on the Plateau, and they were in the eye of the storm with our sister organizations. The determined efforts of the Dogwood Alliance and SOCM made a tremendous difference. They get a lot of credit for getting us down there and being part of this partnership through a long and sometimes difficult process.

The governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen, had indicated that he was troubled about the amount of cutting on the Cumberland Plateau when he flew over it about a year and a half ago, and when he sent that signal it had a big effect. He saw the problems and began a fund for the state of Tennessee to try to purchase some of those lands. Without Bredesen’s interest in this, it would have been very hard for Bowater to step forward.
Bowater turned out to be an organization that had a real interest in solving the problems on the Plateau. Forestry is going to continue there, and it should, but the right approach to forestry ought to mean the great trees are left and the biodiversity is protected. That’s been the goal, and we’ve worked very hard to achieve it. Our membership was instrumental in that success by being in touch with Bowater.

Hershkowitz: When we wrote Bowater and asked them to sit down, it was an offer of collaboration and conciliation. That was true of the second letter we wrote them, and it was also true of the third letter we wrote them. It was only after we didn’t hear back from them in that six-week period that we then made a little bit of noise. Once they heard that noise, they understood that we were not going away and we were not going to be ignored.

Adams: Everyone in the region, from land trusts and state governments to Members of Congress, needs to be thinking about how this agreement creates new avenues for protecting some of that landscape. This is an opportunity to really move the level of timber operating to a Bowater standard.

Hitt: Would that include leveling the playing field with legislation to regulate forest management?

Adams: It could be legislation, but it could also be additional agreements with other timber operators, the creation of county and state forestry lands, or the enlargement of national parks or national forests. This is an opportunity for the Cumberland Plateau to look at itself on a regional scale, the same way people are looking at the New England forests, or the Everglades, or salmon country in the West. Here’s a chance for the Cumberland Plateau states to get together and preserve their heritage, which is what’s at stake.

Hershkowitz: Right now, I don’t know of a region in the United States that’s under more ecological stress than the South. It’s a powder keg of environmental pressures. Population is growing – some of the counties in the Southeast are among the fastest growing in the nation. Large forested and rural areas are being converted to coal mines, pine plantations, strip malls, and highways, not to mention being battered by the pressures of climate change. More than 90% of the landscape is available for commercial or industrial uses. So you’ve got a confluence of pressures that’s unprecedented for the area.

Hitt: Obviously this is a regional issue with much bigger implications or NRDC would not have taken it on. What are some of the larger, global implications of what is happening on the Cumberland Plateau?

Adams: To the extent that one of the largest forested areas in the United States is not cut, or is cut sustainably so that it has a green future, that will have a major impact on climate change because this vast forest will be able to store carbon that would otherwise go into the atmosphere and warm the planet. That could ultimately provide a tax advantage and an environmental advantage to the Cumberland Plateau states.

There is also an opportunity for the South to take a leadership role in environmental stewardship. Politically, the leaders of the Southern states are the leaders of this country, including our most recent presidents. They’re the ones who govern. The Senate majority leader is Bill Frist of Tennessee, and if Frist made a decision that the Cumberland Plateau should get some form of legislative protection, he could make it happen. Senator Lamar Alexander is a great Tennessean who cares about the environment. If they would join with other Southern senators, they could shape the future of the whole region. It would make an unbelievable difference.

Hitt: Looking to the future, what do you see as the major challenges and opportunities facing environmental protection in the Southeast?

Adams: There are a lot of resource issues in the South: mountaintop removal coal mining, water pollution, factory farms, timbering in the wrong way, sprawl and the building of communities on the tops of the mountains that destroy the scenic quality of traveling to the South. Highway building is opening up rural areas and it’s becoming a second home paradise – the weather’s good, the countryside is lovely, the people are nice – and there’s going to continue to be a mass movement to the South, especially by the older population. Obviously this is going to dramatically change the economics of the South. Air pollution in the South is scandalous. If you go to Utah you can see 135 miles, and yet we can’t get those standards for clean air in the South.

Those are the issues that we need to address very, very quickly. With the combined creativity of the universities and nonprofit organizations, we have the opportunity to have a very big impact on some of these problems. The South will be instrumental in addressing the big global challenges – climate, energy, protection of large landscapes, biodiversity, and oceans – and if we don’t deal with those in your lifetime…

Hitt: We’d better.

Adams: Yes, we’d better.

Hitt: I understand that you’re handing off the torch as president of NRDC and moving to a new position next year.

Adams: I’m going to become the founding director. I’ll be working on climate change and land use issues, and I’ll be an advisor to my friend Allen Hershkowitz on the Cumberland Plateau BioGem. After thirty-five years, it will be nice to step back from the day-to-day management and work on projects where I feel like I can make the biggest difference. I’m looking forward to it.

Hitt: We wish you all the best!


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