(originally appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of On Earth, the Natural Resource Defense Council’s magazine)
The Flyover If there were an international tribunal that prosecuted crimes against the planet, like the one in The Hague that deals with crimes against humanity, what is happening on the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Tennessee would undoubtedly be indictable.
The crime—one of many clandestine ecocides American corporations are committing around the world—has taken place over three decades. About 200,000 acres on this tableland have already been clear-cut by the paper industry, and the cutting continues. Where some of the most biologically rich hardwood forest in North America’s temperate zone (which extends from the Gulf of Mexico to southern Canada) once grew, there are now row after row of loblolly pine trees genetically engineered to yield the most pulp in the shortest time. But the paper industry’s insatiable appetite for timber has met with unexpected competition from an equally voracious insect. In the last four years, an estimated 50 to 70 percent of the pines planted on the plateau have been devoured by the southern pine beetle. The entire South has been ravaged by the worst outbreak in its history of this native predator of pine trees, caused by the tremendous increase in the amount of pine available for it to eat on the industry plantations that have replaced the native forest. Unable to salvage its dead timber, the paper industry has been losing hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet it seems still committed to destroying what remains of the extraordinarily lush forest on the Cumberland Plateau, which, along with eastern Tennessee’s Great Valley and the Cumberland Mountains, has the highest concentration of endangered species in North America. The loss of biodiversity is tragic, but also absurd economically; it doesn’t even make good business sense.
Not many people are aware of what is taking place. Nearly ninety percent of the Cumberland Plateau is in private hands and exempt from all but a few government regulations. The federal and state agencies that are supposed to be regulating the paper, timber, and mining industries are populated with former timber executives and have come to view them as clients whose permits and projects should be facilitated rather than scrutinized. The cozy relationship that exists between Tennessee’s public and private sectors, and the impunity and magnitude of the environmental destruction that is taking place on the plateau, is something you might expect in Guatemala or deep in the Brazilian Amazon, not in our republic, where there are supposed to be laws that protect our wilderness treasures and prosecute conflicts of interest. But a quarter of the world’s paper, and 60 percent of America’s wood products, are being produced in the South, and the will to address the abuses of the paper industry, which contributes millions of dollars to the campaign coffers of politicians around the country, just isn’t there— certainly not in Tennessee.
There’s another reason for the lack of public awareness: Much of the devastation is hidden from view by thin “beauty strips” of native forest that have been left along the plateau’s highways. The only way to get the full picture is to go up in a small plane and see it from the air.
SO EARLY THIS PAST SEPTEMBER I took off from Knoxville, Tennessee, in a Cessna 180 piloted by Hume Davenport, the founder of a nonprofit, conservation-minded aviation service called SouthWings. Hume, whose ancestors came to the Cumberlands in l801, has provided his” flying classroom” to dozens of journalists, environmentalists, and policy-makers trying to grasp the enormity of what is happening on the plateau.
The Cumberlands (some dispense with the s) are made up of the Cumberland Plateau and the mountains and foothills on its edges. The plateau itself is a 400-mile-long tableland that is the tail end of the Appalachian Plateau, and extends from West Virginia and Virginia down into Kentucky and Tennessee on a southwesterly diagonal, and peters out in Alabama. The part in Tennessee tapers from 55 miles wide to about 38, and contains 6,875 square miles— an area larger than the state of Connecticut). About 85 percent of it is still covered with the native woodland. Some of the last remaining large stands of the Appalachian mixed mesophytic forest (where a variety of hardwoods grow in moderately moist conditions) are here, but the plateau was “pretty much raked over the coals a century ago,” Hume explained, and most of the trees are second-growth. East of the plateau, plunging a thousand feet in a steep escarpment that was a formidable barrier for the westering pioneers, until Daniel Boone forged a route through the Cumberland Gap in l769, is the Great Valley of East Tennessee, where Knoxville and Chattanooga are, and where the Tennessee River winds.
Soon we were over the Cumberland Mountains, whose peaks range from 2,000 to 4,000 feet. Hume’s aeronautical map indicated “numerous strip mines,” and we could see that some of the mountains had been cored like apples. Others had been decapitated, or “cross-ridge mined,” in the industry’s euphemism. The heyday of the mining was between l920 and l970, and its scars were mostly overgrown with vegetation. But recent improvements in smokestack filters have renewed interest in burning coal, and mining is making a comeback. We circled Zeb Mountain, which the Robert Clear Coal Corporation had just gotten a permit to cross-ridge mine. Roads and sediment ponds had been put in on its slopes, and the trees had been clear-cut, like a person being shaved before an operation. Mud was oozing down into a stream below, smothering the habitat of a striking little fish called the black-side dace, which is only found in 30 streams on earth.
“Mining and clearcutting go hand in hand,” Hume explained.
In nearby Pioneer, we made a few passes over the Royal Blue chip mill, which is owned by International Paper, the biggest paper company in the south. A chip mill is a satellite facility, where hardwoods of smaller diameter and plantation pines are diced into wafers that are taken to a mother mill, to be dissolved into pulp. The larger hardwoods are sawed up into boards at a sawmill.
There are 259 chip and pulp mills in the 13 southern states. More than a hundred of them were constructed between l987 and l997, when chip exports (mostly to Japan) escalated by 500 percent. Five mills get their wood from the plateau. Royal Blue alone eats up 7,000 acres of hardwood trees a year—oaks, tulip poplars, and half a dozen other species— from within a 75-mile radius. We could see two miniature logging trucks coming down the highway far below us, another being unloaded, and four waiting behind it. The logs were being picked up by a huge claw suspended from a crane that fed them into the chipper, which spewed the chips out a pipe directly onto railroad cars that would take them to International Paper’s mother mill in Cortland, Alabama. Most of the wood here is “gatewood”: No questions asked about where the timber comes from or the manner in which it was harvested.
WE BANKED southwest, and heading right down the middle of the plateau, began to see massive devastation. “This isn’t ma-and-pa, let’s-clear-40 acres stuff,” Hume yelled through the headphones. “It’s big, industrial tree-farming. When they took out the big trees a century ago, at least they left the little ones to take their place. But now they’re scraping off the soil, right down to the bedrock. Because it’s thin and sandy, they have to spray massive amounts of fertilizer from crop dusters so the pine trees can grow. It’s complete insanity. Most of the trees they’re planting are being chewed up by beetles. Look at these plantations. It’s a graveyard.”
Below us vast stands of dead gray loblolly pine, covering hundreds of acres, had been skeletonized by the southern pine beetle, Dendroctonus frontalis. The beetle breaks out every 10 to 30 years—what triggers the outbreak is not understood—and attacks native longleaf, shortleaf, Virginia, black, yellow, Table Mountain, and white pines that are sparsely scattered in the hardwood forest. But with many tens of thousands of acres of monoculture pine on the plateau, the beetles have been having a field day. The beetles are even chewing up saplings and the prize conifers in people’s yards. In a race against the plague, the paper companies are being forced to cut their timber before it is mature, creating a glut of scrawny “bugwood” on the market. This has brought the price of pulp to a record low. Coupled with the hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue from the timber the beetles have beaten them to, and competition from Canada’s timber industry, the South’s paper companies are in deep trouble.
The biggest landowner on the southern plateau is Bowater, the largest manufacturer of newsprint in the country and one of the largest of the free-sheet coated paper that cut glossy magazines and catalogues are printed on. Now, as we flew south over Crossville, the commercial hub of the southern plateau and a burgeoning retirement community, houses abruptly gave way to Bowater’s industrial tree-farms and huge squares of mangled wasteland that had been hacked out of the forest and not yet planted. “This plateau has been ransacked,” Hume said sadly. He took us over a particularly vast mutilated swath that some activists have dubbed the Triangle of Destruction, but it is only one of many.
The only clear-cutting I have seen on this scale was in the Amazon 25 years ago. Every merchantable stick below us had been taken, streambeds and banks had been torn up and gouged by recklessly driven machines, and the understory shrubs and stripped-off branches and other debris had been bulldozed into windrows, some of which had been torched and were shooting up sooty flames. “It used to be just Bowater,” Hume said, “but in the last few years International Paper and J.M. Huber—another paper company—have gotten into the act. When Huber showed up in ’97, we saw a vast increase, maybe a doubling, of the clear-cutting.” Four million additional acres of the South’s forests are being converted to pine plantations each year, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and the conversion rate is expected to double by 2040.
On the plateau, this translates to an annual holocaust of about fourteen million trees. What’s driving this? Consider that a quarter of the world’s paper is consumed in the South. The average American consumes about half a ton a year— that’s factoring in toddlers and oldsters, people on life support. This is 111 times the per capita consumption in India, 300 times that of some African countries. Much of this is glossy catalogues and other junk mail, which I get a two-foot stack of each week; the sections of the paper that I chuck without even glancing at them (the Washington Post and other newspapers are printed on Bowater paper taken straight from the Plateau); the inch-high stack of napkins we’re handed whenever we get take-out; the 10 feet of toilet paper we rip off to wipe ourselves. As one environmentalist put it arrestingly: “We’re wiping our asses with habitat.”
The Forest Primeval
The Appalachian mixed mesophytic forest, which still covers five-sixths of the Cumberland Plateau, evolved without disturbance for hundreds of million of years, because the glaciers never got this far south. Genetically distinct populations of plants, salamanders, and other organisms arose in the hollows, coves, and gulfs that pleat the plateau. There are nine endemic species of lungless plethodon salamander here. But amphibians are among the first victims of deforestation and of the dessication and silting up of streams that ensue. The plateau also boasts 20 mussel and 40 crayfish species that evolved here and are found nowhere else. Even more diverse are the fish: 231 species, of which 67 are endemic: 16 minnows, five suckers, two cave springfish, one killifish, one pygmy sunfish, one sculpin, and an incredible 41 darters, and new ones are being discovered all the time. Others are probably being wiped out before they can even be identified.
The Cumberland Plateau has the highest concentration of caves and of cave-dwelling invertebrate species in North America. Three species of bat are endangered or threatened, and 12 of rodent. The plateau is also a major nexus for migratory birds, a pit stop for many species as they wend their way back and forth from South America or the Caribbean to the Canadian boreal, as well as the home of many year-round inhabitants.
The original forest still stands in only a few places on the plateau. Starting in the l870’s, as the Northeast was industrializing and its cities were mushrooming, there was a great demand for wood. The agents of coal and timber corporations came down and hornswoggled the local unschooled people of the Cumberlands out of their trees, paying 40 cents (in the coin of the day) for a 175-foot-tall tulip poplar, offering a new squirrel gun for 3,000 acres of timber rights. Pretty much every decent-sized tree, except the ones in the most inaccessible coves and hollows, was sawed down and floated down the Cumberland or Sequatchie rivers, or beginning in the l890’s, taken out by rail. The logging boom ended in l901. Then they went after the coal, and in the seventies, when most of that was gone, they started in on the trees again.
HUME BROUGHT HIS CESSNA DOWN at a small air strip belonging to the University of the South, in Sewanee, 50 miles south of the Triangle of Destruction. The university has a 10,000-acre campus that includes most of Shakerag Hollow, where some of the last virgin, old-growth forest in the state survives. We picked our way down a steep trail into it with Jonathan Evans, a plant ecologist at the university, and his colleague David Haskell, who is an animal ecologist.
David, a lanky, long-bearded Englishman who looked like the young Alfred Russell Wallace, or one of the other Victorian naturalists, said he’d like to get his hands on the local fishermen who came down into the hollow with buckets and filled them with salamanders for bait. Mountain dusky, spotted, marbled and slimy salamanders live here. A dozen or so large, dazzling butterflies were flapping around: pipevine swallowtails, red-spotted purples, tiger swallowtails, a gulf fritillary, and a lone monarch fueling up for the long flight it would soon be taking to its winter hibernaculum in the volcanic highlands of central Mexico.
A hundred feet down we paused on a ledge under an overhanging, algae-greened wall of sandstone, whose cracks David said were home to “a mysterious green plethodon.” Jon pointed out a rare perennial fern, Silene rotundifolia. Another 30 feet down we came upon several pawpaw trees. Papaw must be one of the least- known fruits in America— it tastes like a cross between papaya, banana, avocado, and mango—as well as one of the few that can ripen without direct sunlight. It needs to be shaded by bigger trees; its future depends on the survival of the hardwood forest.
As we continued our descent, the trees began to get very tall, 150, even 200 feet high or more: soaring, pencil-straight red oaks, tulip poplars, black walnuts, buckeyes, sugar maples, mockernut, pignut, and shagbark hickories. Some were cabled with grape vines so thick you couldn’t enclose them with your hands.
Jon pointed out some wild yam, a yellow mandarin (in the lily family), rattlesnake ferns, a rack of ghostly-white oyster mushrooms on a fallen, rotting log. David identified curiously approaching Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice, the flirtatious tawee-tawee-tawee-tee-o of a hooded warbler, the wheeze of Acadian flycatcher, and found a mountain dusky salamander and a green frog below a spring spurting out of the steep slope of the hollow. Jon picked up a stout, five-inch-long, green caterpillar, whose head was bristling with menacing red horns. This was the biggest caterpillar I had ever seen or imagined could exist. He said it was called a hickory horn devil, and would become a royal walnut silk moth. “We have the full complement of silk moths here,” he told us proudly.
I ducked behind a boulder that had broken off from the cliffs above to find a four-foot-long black rat snake frozen in mid-slither and staring at me intently. It looked as if it had just eaten something, probably another snake. Black rat snakes are expert climbers and spend much of their time in trees, looking for nestlings or bird eggs. They kill by constriction. Very agile and fast, they are also known as pilot black snakes, because they den with timber rattlesnakes and copperheads (also denizens of Shakerag Hollow) and lead them to safety when the den is threatened. We returned up the path a few minutes later and peered behind the boulder where the snake had been. It was gone.
The forest was so lush and teeming with life, I half-expected to see monkeys flinging themselves through the trees. Shakerag Hollow has one of the most riotously species-rich forests in the South. By contrast, the pine plantations that are rapidly replacing these fecund ecosystems have 95 percent fewer species, according to one estimate by Harvard biologist E.O.Wilson. Who in their right mind would sanction this devastation, I wondered. Why? So we can have more reading matter, more toilet paper? So the beetles can have another smorgasbord? Is this a reasonable trade-off, or a kind of blasphemy?
Spinning the Landscape
We had not come to Sewanee to take a walk in Shakerag Hollow. That was my idea: I wanted to get a clear picture of what is being lost. We had come to talk to Jon about the study he and his colleagues at the university’s Landscape Analysis Laboratory put out last year. Called “An Assessment of Forest Change on the Cumberland Plateau in Southern Tennessee.” It is the first scientifically rigorous quantification of the havoc that the paper industry has been wreaking, going back to l981, in the seven southernmost of the 16 counties on the Tennessee part of the plateau. Jon was the principle investigator. David assessed the impact on the birds and the salamanders. Not surprisingly, he found that the salamander populations in the clear-cuts were dramatically smaller, and that the bird communities in the native forest, which have some of the highest biodiversity in the Southeast, could not be supported by the pine plantations and residential areas taking its place.
Jon had come from Rice in l994, attracted by the size of the campus and the opportunities it offered to study natural forest change. One day, he went up in a plane to see what the forest looked like from the air, and he saw, as we just had, the clear-cuts on Bowater land bordering the campus. “It’s sickening, isn’t it?” he asked us. “I can’t go up there any more. When we started our study, in the late 90’s, the plateau wasn’t on anybody’s radar. Zack Wamp, the congressman from Chattanooga, had been hearing from his constituents who were alarmed by what was going on, but the paper industry was spinning the landscape. It was saying there’s always been pine on the plateau, we aren’t doing anything up there.
“So we put a macroscope on this landscape and showed it for the world to see,” Jon went on. In numerous flyovers and by poring over satellite photos and aerial shots taken by various federal and state agencies, Jon and his colleagues studied a 616,000-acre area, comprising about 38 percent of the seven southernmost counties that had originally been plateau forest (as opposed to the less accessible cove forest like Shakerag Hollow). They discovered that 12 to 15 percent of their study area—or about 73,000 acres—had been converted to pine farms. They also found that the conversion rate had doubled in the last three years of the study, from l997 to 2000. Only three years prior to Jon’s study, the Tennessee Division of Forestry and the University of Tennessee Forestry Extension Service were maintaining that an extensive conversion of native forest to pine was not taking place. Using state-of-the-art computer mapping, Jon’s data precisely documented, for the first time, the horrible reality. A veil that had been kept in place by industry, state foresters, and industry-friendly academics and number-crunchers, had finally been lifted.
Climbing back into the Cessna, we rose above the University of the South’s Gothic spires and flew southeast, off the plateau and into the Great Valley. Before long an enormous industrial complex—Bowater’s Calhoun Mill—hove into view. The largest manufacturer of newsprint in the United States, it has been operating since l954 and sits on the Hiwassee River, a tributary of the Tennessee. As we circled it from several thousand feet above, the rotten-egg fumes of methyl mercaptan and hydrogen sulfide emitted by its digesters penetrated the cabin of the Cessna and made us all nauseous. This is a pervasive smell in much of the rural South. Bowater alone has 12 pulp and paper mills in the U.S., Canada, and South Korea, supported by 1.4 millions acres of owned or leased timberland in the U.S., the bulk of which—about 700,000 acres—are in the Southeast. It also owns 32 million acres of timber-cutting rights in Canada. Besides manufacturing 18 percent of North America’s newsprint and 7 percent of the world’s, Bowater produces five kinds of “market pulp,” one of which—Calhoun southern bleached hardwood Kraft pulp—is made here, from “premium grade southern mixed hardwoods,” as the company’s website explains. The hardwoods come from the Cumberland Plateau, where Bowater owns about 160,000 acres. We could see a continuous procession of logging trucks entering and exiting the compound, adding their loads to a pile of logs the size of several football fields and three stories high. “The scale of this operation is intimidating,” Hume said. “It’s hard to fathom how many trees, how many acres of forest, it must take to feed it.”
After being unloaded, the logs, both the native hardwoods and plantation pines—scrawny bugwood, for the most part—are debarked in a drum. What happens next is no different from any pulp and paper mill. The bark is used with coal (which there was a small mountain of near the entrance of the complex) to fire the plant. The logs are fed into a chipper, and the chips conveyed to digesters, where the natural glue that binds the cellulose together in rigid columns of wood is dissolved in a soup of highly toxic chemicals (including the ones we were gagging on). The broken-down fiber then undergoes varying stages of pulping, from gray to off-white. The lower-grade, softwood pulp is pressed into newsprint and wound on rollers, which are trucked to the printing plants of the Washington Post, or one of Bowater’s dozens of other customers. Some of it is sent to the Kimberly Clark mill in nearby Loudon, Tennessee, to be made into an assortment of tissue products, including Cottonelle toilet paper.
Converting the timber that comes to the Calhoun mill into pulp and paper requires tons of chemicals a day. These are produced by a plant that the Olin chemical company has built close by. Instead of having to deliver the chemicals in hundreds of truckloads, they are piped directly to the mill. The residue after the wood is broken down includes some of the most hazardous and toxic substances in existence, such as polychlorinated dibenzo P dioxins (PCCD’s), mercury, and lead. Most of the mill’s contaminated effluent is discharged into several huge sludge ponds that we could see beside the river. There it is broken down chemically and eventually discharged into the river.
“Generally, the paper industry’s view is that the solution to pollution is dilution,” explained Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Recently, the Calhoun Mill had a “color issue”TK: its effluent visibly changed the color of the Hiwassee River. “But the state worked with them on it,” an activist told me, “by raising the threshold of permissible visible color change so that the mill could meets its water-quality standards.”
A FEW DAYS LATER I put in a call to Barry Graden, Bowater’s southeastern woodlands operations manager. I asked him if I could come down and talk to him and get a tour of the mill and maybe go up with him to the plateau and take a look at Bowater’s operation up there. We did a little Tennessee waltz, with me proposing six days, one after the other, when I could come, and Barry telling me that he was booked on all of them.
“What about somebody else, then ?” I asked. “Is there somebody else who could show me around?”
“I’m running into a brick wall on that one,” Barry said.
“What about Dave Smith, your timberlands manager?” I suggested. “He must know all about the operation.”
“Dave isn’t authorized to talk to the media,” he said. “We have a strict policy regarding the media.”
“Well then, could you just tell me someplace that I could go to on my own where I could see what you’re doing?” I asked. Here he was no help either.
Barry and I did end up having a long talk on the phone, during which he described all the good things Bowater was supposedly doing on the plateau. But it bore little resemblance to what I had seen from the air and from the ground. Barry explained that Bowater subscribed to something called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), whose objectives “protecting wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and watersheds, conserving soil,” and attending to the “visual impact” and “the aesthetics” of the timber operation.” Barry himself was in charge of Bowater’s compliance with the initiative for the Southeast. More than 100 million acres of American forestland are enrolled in the program. But not everyone shared Barry’s enthusiasm for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Activists contend that it competes with—and intentionally obscures—another protocol known as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which was developed in the late 1990s by environmental groups fighting to save to save the coastal rainforest in British Columbia. One hundred Fortune 500 companies, including Home Depot, now participate in the Forest Stewardship Council by agreeing not to use wood from endangered forests and to buy only FSC-certified wood harvested in accordance with sustainable logging and plantation practices cut.
“The paper industry’s response was to confuse the issue,” Allen Hershkowitz explained, “and counter the market momentum generated by the Forest Stewardship Council. International Paper will stamp on its paper we are complying with the SFI, and people will think it’s the FSC. It’s a classic weakening technique. But the SFI sucks. It’s a fig leaf that tolerates all kinds of bad practices, business as usual. Everything that is happening on the plateau is SFI-certified.”
Barry assured me, “Everything we do is verified by an environmental auditor, and we provide our customers and the media and environmental organizations the opportunity to see for themselves that we are doing what we say we do.” But apparently, that didn’t include me.
Barry also claimed that Bowater made every effort to protect endangered species, but Lee Barclay, the supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s field office in charge of protecting the federally-listed endangered and threatened species in Tennessee, complained that he often can’t get on cut the paper companies’ land to see what is there.
“They have to give us permission to enter;” Barclay told me.”It’s private land, so we have no authority unless we have proof that they are knowingly thumbing their noses at the Endangered Species Act, and you need dead bodies to do that. Their attitude is, if we let them get a foot in the door, we’ll never be able to close it.”
Just this October the discovery of a new species of salamander on the plateau was announced. Who knows what other unknown flora and fauna are on the ninety percent of it that is in private hands ? And as Barclay said, “What does it cost to work around a small area that is the critical habitat of some rare snail ?”
I spent a week poking around on the plateau, talking with activists, spraying victims, government bureaucrats, local people in the “hollers.” In the Cumberland foothills, west of the plateau, near Pleasant Shade, which is near Difficult, which is near Defeated (where Confederate soldiers lost a battle to the Union), I walked out on a knife-edge ridge into some plateau forest that had never been cut. I saw some of biggest black walnuts and beeches in the country, so thick a class of 15 school kids would have had trouble encircling one of them with their joined hands. Twenty or so wild turkeys were scratching and rooting around in the leaf litter. Pileated woodpeckers were calling exultantly, having just ripped into a dying tree and slurped up a meal of carpenter ants. It was like the sound of jungle. I came across an old, fallen-down farmhouse and barn that had been built with massive, dovetailed chestnut planks eight inches thick, two feet high, and fifteen feet long. Straight-grained, rot-resistant, easy to split and to plane and lasting forever, chestnut was an almost perfect wood, and the first tree that the settlers and loggers went after.
I bought some watermelons from 84-year-old Willard Bouldin, who lives on a farm above the Triangle of Destruction. “That clear-cutting was the worst thing that ever happened around here,” Willard told me. “I mean they took everything, till the only thing left was burrs. What’re they gonna do when they run out of wood?” he mused. “I guess they’ll have to make paper out of something else.”
I spent a night at Rita Pruett’s bed and breakfast, on the edge of Fall Creek Falls State Park, which is in the heart of the plateau and boasts the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. “Most of my guests are out-of-state leaf-peepers,” said Rita, whose people have been living on the plateau since the l830s. “They come over from the Smokies and say that our leaves are the prettiest. They don’t come here to see clear-cuts or pine plantations.” She took me for a drive, past the one-room schoolhouse that she had walked to as a child, past the boarded-up garment factory where she had worked to put herself through college, past her parents’ homestead up on Spencer Mountain, where we looked out over thousands of acres of Bowater clear-cut. “This is where it really hits me,” she said sadly. “The devastation is so vast, and it’s all happened in the last few years. It seems like they just jumped on all of Van Buren County at one time.”
Joe Rogers, whose people have lived up the road from Rita, in Spencer, for generations and now look out on thousands of more acres of Bowater clear-cut, drove me out to the park’s Caney Creek Gulf overlook. It was a magnificent wilderness vista, like a canyon in the Southwest except that it was full of trees. Its rims bristled with native old-growth conifers that had escaped the beetle and never been cut because the terrain was so rugged. Joe had worked for the national park service, training its employees how to combat highly invasive exotic species like kudzu and Japanese honeysuckle, until was terminated by the Bush regime last year. “This is what it all looked like,” he told me, “and given the right circumstances, it could all come back like this. But the forest isn’t being given time to renew. I’ve seen this clear-cutting going on for years, and it’s just greed from my point of view. There’s a way to farm these forest products, as they’re called, without decimating the environment. But they’re just looking at their quota sheets, trying to generate money.”
We drove down to Highway 8 and headed up Rocky River Road, which runs right through the Triangle of Destruction. Because it’s a back road Bowater hadn’t bothered to leave beauty strips, so you could see the mutilated wasteland spreading in every direction. Much of it was bare earth, with a few branches and other debris scattered on it. We passed three flatbeds loaded with scrawny bugwood waiting for trucks to come and take them down to the Calhoun Mill, and stands of dead gray pine, and long lines of smoldering windrows separated by naked earth.
“This is all SFI-certified, if you can believe it,” Joe said. We saw no effort to prevent erosion by revegetation. No buffers of native forest along the streams (the stream management zones touted by Barry Graden). The machines had just ploughed right into the water, destroying the banks and streambeds.
“We gotta have more stringent laws here,” Joe said. “A lot of the loggers”— locals that Bowater contracts to cut their trees—“have only an eighth-grade education and don’t know any better. There has to be environmental education, too, starting in elementary school, so when the kids grow up they can educate their parents.”
“The northern corporations have taken advantage of these people for a hundred years,” another long-time resident told me. “They feel powerless, and they are. When a corporation opens up a mine, they line up for a job that lasts five years, then they’re right back where they started, except the land’s all chewed up.”
EVEN LOCALS whose health has been damaged by the aerial spraying of herbicides and fertilizers hesitate to come forward. After an area has been clear-cut, herbicides like Arsenol, Roundup, and Escort, are routinely sprayed to keep the hardwood sprouts from competing with the pine that is going to be planted. Then, and repeatedly during the pine’s 12-15 year growth cycle, fertilizers like diammonium phosphate and urea are sprayed to help them grow. The spraying is done by helicopters or AT-802 crop dusters with 58-foot wingspans that fly low over the clear-cut or right over the growing trees, delivering 20 or 30 loads per flight. The main outfit contracted by the paper companies AirTech, which in the fall of l999, its first season of operation, sprayed over three million pounds of fertilizer on Bowater lands in eastern Tennessee.
“The local residents are not notified, and the toxic compounds frequently drift over their property and cause physical ailments like headaches, nausea, burning lungs, nosebleeds, skin rashes, and SARD, or severe airway restrictive disorder, with which dozens of plateau people have been diagnosed,” said Mike Knapp, who is working on the issue for an organization called Save Our Cumberland Mountains. “Many others have been sprayed but haven’t come forward because they don’t think they can do anything about it, and haven’t gone to doctors because they can’t afford insurance. Only a few have substantiated their claims with blood tests and a full toxicological profile, which cost several thousand dollars.” In April, however, 14 families in Cumberland County filed a class-action suit against Bowater and AirTech.
Mike Crews was sprayed four years ago, and again on the 9th of last September, along with his 77-year-old mother and his 10-year-old grandson. They are preparing to sue Aerotech and International Paper, which owns the clear-cut bordering his mother’s land in Pinkney, west of the plateau, where the latest incident took place. Mike is a 53-year old employee of Murray International, where he transfers garden tractors from the paint line to the final assembly line, but he hasn’t been able to work for a year because of his poor health. “We went over there when they were putting more poison into the helicopter and pleaded with them not to spray, ” he told me. “I was already exposed to drift in l999 and my health was weakened. I got heart and respiratory problems, and they have to keep an eye on my liver as well. I told them the way you’re spraying, it’s going to drift over our trees and kill them, and over the cattle in our pasture and our hayfields. They aren’t supposed to spray when the wind velocity is more than 10 miles per hour, and I showed him how the leaves on the ground were blowing and said the wind velocity must be more than that. But the man kept filling the chopper with poison, and the pilot said to me, ‘We have the right to spray and we’re going to proceed.’ So we drove over to the pasture and parked there, hoping that would stop them. My mom went into the woods, thinking it would shelter her from the mist. They flew over us seven times. We could feel the mist hitting our faces.
“The next morning all three of us were having trouble breathing, so we went over to the clinic in Columbia and had blood and urine tests. My hemoglobin was dangerously low, which it had never been before.” Crews contacted a researcher at the Organic Crop Improvement Association, which investigates pesticide contamination. “He took samples off our shoes, clothing, and hats, and found traces of 2-4 D, Bromacil, and another herbicide,”Crews continued. “He hadn’t compiled all the poisons last time I talked to him. And I had a light stroke a week ago last Wednesday, so I haven’t been able to find out if he’s finished the report.
“I’ve been battling this thing since l999. Someone in my shape, it kills you pretty quick. But I just want to say on behalf of the communities of Pinkney and West Point, that we’re keeping vigil. We’re all trying to work together to do something about this.”
The Forest Watchers
I spent a day tromping around in the Cumberland Mountains with Doug Murray, the founder of a grassroots organization called Tennessee Forest Watch that he runs out of his house. An easygoing, cut chain-smoking, 59-year-old Californian, Doug took me to his favorite beautiful places and showed me the horrible things that had been done to them. He objected to being described as an activist. “Activist to me implies some kind of a tree sitter or banner hanger or professional environmentalist,” he said. “We are forest watchers,” which in this case includes Doug, two naturalists, and a 13-year-old neighbor’s boy, among others; none are paid. Doug, who has a masters degree in animal behavior and biology from U Cal Sonoma, puts in 10-hour days, walking in the mountains by day, and by night writing up reports of the violations of forests and streams and the laws protecting them.
“We are just ecokeepers, housekeepers of the larger house,” Doug explained. “No expertise or PhD is required. It takes nothing to recognize a ruined stream; it’s innate, like the ability to recognize a bleeding wound or an ugly growth.”
When Doug first settled in the Cumberlands 20 years ago, he built himself a cabin deep in the woods, but no sooner had he banged the last nail when chainsaws started screaming all around him. The Champion paper company was cutting the 75,000-acre forest next to his land. They were his neighbors. “I discovered that there were no regulations, no notification of intent to cut, no protection for endangered species, a complete hands-off policy, because it was private property, and private property rights are sacred in this part of the world,” Doug recalled. “Nobody knew what was happening, and nobody cared. Nobody was minding the store, so who was going to do it? Concerned citizens.” Doug started to monitor and systematically document what he saw. “It was dicey,” he recalled. “Who wants to march through private lands in the South, to tattle on really bad abuses? A guy could get his head blown off.” He called his one-man watchdog organization the Center, “to keep it as low-key and ambiguous as possible.”
Doug gradually became an expert on the intricacies of the Clean Water Act. “It’s the only hook we have,” he explained. “People think we’re out to protect the water. We are, but it’s only a mechanism for stopping the rape.”
Doug took me into the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area and showed me where an orange, highly acidic brook from an abandoned mine was pouring into a hemlock-lined creek called Straight Fork, wiping out the aquatic life downstream. This is what is known as a point-source pollution and is a violation of the Clean Water Act. So are the destruction of stream banks and the diversion of their channels. These are the main things that Doug looks for. But getting anybody to do anything about such localized abuses is a major battle. Doug wrote up dozens of detailed reports and documented them with photographs and affidavits from natural scientists. Finally, five years ago, the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation, which had maintained that point-source pollution is only something that comes out of a pipe, began to come around and decided that point-source pollution is, as Doug put it, “anything you can point a finger at.”
Doug’s latest battle is to save the blackside dace from being wiped out by the sediment from Zeb Mountain. But the judge who denied the motion for a temporary injunction to stop the mining until an environmental impact assessment was done is one of the Bush administration’s new right-wing, anti-environmental appointees, who came from a firm that represents polluting companies and other bad actors like Bowater in precisely this sort of suit from environmental groups. So the outlook for the dace in this stream is not looking good.
IN 1993 DOUG STARTED COMMUNICATING with an equally dedicated forest watcher named Cielo Sand. A Hoosier, she changed her name to Cielo after a vision quest in northern New Mexico in the late sixties. “I had no intention of becoming an activist,” she said, “but the river called me.”
Cielo is married to Leaf Myczack, who plies the 652-mile long Tennessee, looking for bad actors, in a 30-foot sailing ketch that he and Cielo built in the late eighties, issuing homemade tickets that have no official status or financial clout, but are, rather, “moral wake-up calls,” as Cielo explained.
A few evenings after my day with Doug Murray, I pulled into the marina at Sale Creek, on the north bank of the Tennessee, half a mile of north of Chattanooga. Cielo had invited me for dinner on their boat, the Riverkeeper. The sun was setting as we boarded it and headed upriver. We passed three brand-new mansions perched on a bluff, each of them 15,000 or 20,000 square feet and mostly glass. Three-story, swept-back cabin cruisers were moored at the docks beneath them. The new American rich—a stark contrast to the dirt-poor plateau people living only 20 miles northwest.
On the other side of the river was a lower middle-class waterfront community. We cruised past a family—a man and his wife and their three grown kids, all five of them in the 300-pound range– were sitting on their dock in aluminum deck chairs, drinking beers in the twilight.
Cielo has a disarming way of hanging out at convenience stores and getting information out of loggers. Under her gauzy New Aginess is a woman of grit and determination. She developed a relationship with the Environmental Quality Staff of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and they alerted her to the fact that 17-24 new sites were being considered for chips mills on the Tennessee.
Cielo and other activists demanded an environmental impact statement be done for three mills that were to be built on the river; as a result, in 1993 the TVA denied them permits. It was a huge win; since then, no other chips mills across the Southeast have applied for river permits. But off-river permits, which don’t require an environmental impact statement, continued to proliferate.
In l996, Cielo and Danna Smith, who had worked on forest-protection campaigns for Greenpeace, founded the Dogwood Alliance, an umbrella group of 72 grassroots religious, student, and community activist organizations concerned with protecting the forests of the South. Last year Dogwood got Staples, the $11 billion office supply company, and one of International Paper’s biggest customers, to commit to phasing out products from endangered forests and to use an average of 30-percent post-consumer recycled fiber for all its paper products—an enormous victory. Dogwood considers “market strategy”—leveraging the paper companies through their consumers—as the best way to stop what they are doing on the plateau. “Hitting them where it hurts is the only language they understand,” Allen Hershkowitz agreed. “Some of Staples’ paper probably comes from the Royal Blue mill, and they need to know this. A lot more chain-of-custody work—tracing the fiber from the forest to the mill to the consumers—has to be done. Office Depot is another big customer of International Paper, and it also buys from the Weyerhaeuser paper company’s mill in Kingsport, Tennessee, which is just off the plateau and probably sources from it. Office Depot has to be pressured into making the same commitment that Staples and Home Depot have. Then we can get the three of them competing to have the greenest paper on the block. But first, a lot more dots have to be connected.”
As for Bowater, because it supplies its newsprint or market pulp to practically every major publication in the country—The New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Knight-Ridder and Gannet chains; The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, Conde Nast Traveler (which gives an annual environmental award), and the rest of the Conde Nast empire; Golf Digest, TV Guide, even the Utne Reader—the leveraging potential is very promising. With the Dogwood Alliance as its main local partner, Allen is organizing an NRDC campaign that will invest five to seven million dollars into saving the Cumberland Plateau over the next 10 years.
“So what’s that going to do for it ?” I asked.
“It means we don’t leave until we win,” he said.
So things are starting to move. The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund have initiatives of their own to save the plateau, and a new democratic governor in Nashville, Phil Bredesen, and his progressive circle offer a window of opportunity for passing regulatory legislation with some teeth. The Cumberland Plateau is poised at a critical moment in its history. If the opportunity is squandered, if everyone simply keeps playing the Tennessee Waltz, they will awaken one day to an irreversible tragedy, just as the song says: Now I know just how much I have lost.