Is the wood product industry sustainable in Western Tidewater?

Published 10:24 am Saturday, April 4, 2015

A logging crew uses heavy equipment to bring down trees in the area of Black Creek. -- Cain Madden | Tidewater News

A logging crew uses heavy equipment to bring down trees in the area of Black Creek. — Cain Madden | Tidewater News

A centuries-old practice in Southampton County and the city of Franklin, the logging industry has been vital to Western Tidewater since its inception in the early 1800s. What started with a small lumber mill located on the eastern bank of the Blackwater River developed into a thriving pulp and paper business that offered thousands of jobs to local residents during its height.

The mill — Camp Manufacturing Company — struggled to get off the ground in part because of financial hardships, but grew rapidly when the demand for lumber became infinite during the First World War. Because of this boom, Franklin and Southampton hitched their wagons to the logging industry and never looked back.

Through its merger with Union Bag and Paper Company in 1956, sale to International Paper in 1999, closure in 2010 and subsequent reopening a year later, the mill has primarily harvested wood from private and company-controlled forests. Because the company was successful for more than a century, there was never a question of whether or not the logging industry was sustainable in the region.

That question was asked, however, when Enviva — one of the world’s largest manufacturer of processed biomass — built a facility in Southampton County in 2013. In the year-plus since the facility was built on Rose Valley Road, logging practices have become more prominent throughout the county than it ever has been in its history.

The wood pellet industry has become prevalent in the United States in recent years thanks to European governments attempting to reduce fossil-fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions within their borders by switching from burning coal to burning wood products.

Europe doesn’t have enough forests to cut down for energy purposes, though. And because those forests that the continent does have are under heavy restrictions, it relies upon companies in the United States to provide the biomass.

According to Justin Scheck of The Wall Street Journal, laws require loggers in the United Kingdom to get permits for any large-scale tree-cutting, leave a buffer of standing trees along wetlands and cannot clear-cut unless the purpose is to restore the habitat that was altered by the harvest.

No such rules exist in Virginia, however. Nor do they exist in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or North Carolina, from where Enviva sources its wood.

The southeast has long been home to the logging industry, and Enviva has essentially stepped into a number of communities where sawmills have closed, have access to ports and where jobs are greatly needed, such as Franklin. It has brought more than 70 full-time jobs to the area, as well as a number of additional employees through its supply chain. This will only continue to grow as the company expands and the demand for wood pellets increases.

The Southampton plant currently has a production capacity of 510,000 tons of wood pellets annually. This is only a small portion of the approximately 2.25 million tons that Enviva’s six facilities produce each year.

Meanwhile, there are roughly 246,000 acres of privately owned, harvestable timber in Southampton County, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry’s 2014 census.

Eric Roper, area forester for the Blackwater work area, said that in the four years prior to Enviva’s arrival, an annual average of 7,416 acres were harvested across the county and used by Franklin Lumber and International Paper. That number increased by more than 1,200 acres in the company’s first full year in the area.

Senior forester Scott Bachman, also of the Blackwater work area, added that each harvest is done purposely with the intent of receiving the highest value for each tree.

“Clear-cut old timber, such as hardwood and pines, are the most valuable; then saw timber to make two-by-fours, four-by-fours; and so on. The lowest value wood, like branches and trees smaller than six inches in diameter, go to the energy market.”

In this case, the high-value timber would go to Franklin Lumber; twisted, not straight and/or hollow pulpwood to International Paper; and branches and small tress to Enviva.

Enviva’s mission statement backs that up, too, saying that its raw materials consist of only low-grade wood fiber (wood that is unsuitable for or rejected by the sawmilling and lumber industries because of small size, defects, disease or pest-infestation); tops and limbs (the parts of trees that cannot be processed into lumber); commercial thinnings (harvests that promote the growth of higher value timber by removing weaker or deformed trees to reduce competition for water, nutrients and sunlight); and mill residues (chips, sawdust and other wood industry byproducts). It also said that much of this wood would be left in the forests to decompose if it were not used for biomass.

Scot Quaranda, communications director for the Dogwood Alliance, said this is untrue, though, and that Enviva cuts more than the public is led to believe.

“There’s plenty of evidence that shows they’ve been destroying whole trees and making them into pellets. They’re cutting predominately hardwood; pretty much anything they can get their hands on. They’re willing to take whatever, and they’re not selective.”

Additionally, Bachman added that not all of clear-cuts are being replanted, either.

“Most of them are, but we don’t keep track of that as well as we want to, like we do with the harvest numbers,” he said. “It’s typically up to the landowner if and when they replant. We advise and recommend that they do, but they don’t always.”

It’s likely that foresters have difficulty keeping track of the process because the logging industry no longer works in compliance with the Seed Tree Law, adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in March 1996. It requires loggers to leave eight cone-bearing pine trees 14 inches or larger in diameter uncut and uninjured on each acre of land where Loblolly or white pine constitutes 25 percent or more of the trees on each acre. If a seed tree is cut, the law says that 100 seedlings must be planted in its place.

Mike Aherron, forester in the Maritime work area, said this law is rarely — if ever — enforced today.

“Back when that law went into effect, people were told to leave some pine trees so that more could grow,” Aherron said, “but then it became ‘What if we don’t want that in the future?’ Then it turned into a private property rights issue, so we just go out about a year after a clear cut and count regeneration.”

Despite the fact that the Seed Tree Law says that any person in violation is guilty of a misdemeanor and will be fined $30 for each seed tree cut, Aherron said that he couldn’t recall the last time someone was fined for the offense.

“There are random cases, like one dispute between landowners, but that’s pretty much it.”

In other cases, some landowners may decide to not replant because of financial hardships or because they’re waiting for natural regeneration. Because the Virginia Department of Forestry offers a Reforestation of Timberlands Program, which covers a percentage of the cost for site preparation, seedlings and planting, the latter is the main reason that replanting generally occurs eight to 12 months after a harvest.

“Within one year, you’ll know if Mother Nature is going to help out and the trees will grow naturally,” Bachman said, noting that removal of debris from a harvest also takes several months. “If you cut in the late fall or winter and plant in the spring, you may plant on top of natural seed and you’ll have too many trees. Cut in the spring or summer and plant in the fall, you’ll be able to see if something is already growing.”

If the trees are, in fact, replanted, the senior forester said they can be reharvested in as little as 15 years.

“If it’s managed well, it’ll grow in densely and can be harvested every 15 years… If left to grow naturally, it’s about 50 or 60 years until they’re a marketable product.”

In this case, where landowners are hoping to get the trees to market as quickly as possible, the department of forestry recommends replanting Loblolly pine. Bachman said it’s the fastest growing and easiest to manage.

For those less interested in a quick turnaround and more focused on a higher quality, the department advises planting a Shortleaf or Longleaf pine, where applicable.

“Wetlands cannot be replanted with pine, and in those areas, (the landowners) let the hardwood regrow naturally.”

If you start the 15-year reforestation and reharvesting cycle today, as Backman mentioned, under the assumption that all landowners replant and use the five-year annual average of harvested trees as a benchmark moving forward, the number of acres that will remain in Southampton County in 2030 will be roughly 131,595 acres. Nearly half of the county’s acreage will disappear before those trees can be reharvested for the first time. From there on, the practice is sustainable, as roughly 7,627 acres are harvested and 7,627 acres are replanted each year.

Bachman also said that a more generous replanting and reharvesting cycle is 20 to 25 years. Using that number, the total acres remaining in the county in 2035 (20 years) would be 93,460; and 55,325 acres in 2040 (25 years). Again, the practice is sustainable from there, but Southampton County would see massive deforestation prior to that date.

“There is a long-term viability with continuous harvesting,” Roper added, “but I’m not sure what their business plans are.”

Quaranda argued that as well.

“It is not sustainable. First and foremost, it’s an industry that could be short-lived. It’s not good for the environment, and it relies upon an European market that is finicky.”

He said that every inch in Southampton County won’t be cut, as there are several acres of protected forests or natural parks within the region. Quaranda points out that the hardwood trees Enviva cuts down do not have such quick turnaround.

“You can’t just put those into plantations. They need natural regeneration by the acorns that fall into the soil or through the trees that will grow out of the stumps that deforestation leaves, and it takes 60-plus years to mature.”

Based on a natural growth process, projections show that it would take only 33 years for every tree in Southampton County to disappear, falling quite short of the 60-year cycle that Quaranda said hardwood trees need.

Enviva, Franklin Lumber and International Paper, meanwhile, said that the practice is entirely consistent with, and in many cases, essential to sustainable forest management. Each also noted that their forestry operations are continuously certified for sustainability by the top international forestry organizations.

Enviva even goes so far as to cite multiple academic and scientific reports on the best forestry practices on their website, saying that clear cuts are often the best way to ensure the healthy regeneration of ecosystems, and that they do not and will not contribute to deforestation.

“Sustainability is an essential, non-negotiable part of our business,” Enviva said in its question-and-answer section.

Scheck’s article also mentioned that Europe’s nine-largest wood-burning utilities consumed 6.7 million tons of wood pellets in 2012, and expects that number to nearly double by 2020. American mills exported roughly 1.9 million tons of pellets last year, to whom much of that new demand will fall.

If Enviva — or any company, for that matter — subsequently ramps up production to meet that appetite, Quaranda doesn’t believe Southampton County could keep up.

“We can expect a lot more clear-cutting, with whole forests destroyed and being turned into plantations,” he said. “The forests in Southeastern Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina are the best and most biodiverse in the country. They shouldn’t be looking at burning wood for energy as a way to fix climate change, but finding a way to protect these forests that provide clean water to the communities and habitats for the animals instead of clear-cutting and shipping them to Europe.”

Ultimately, the question of sustainability falls upon the shoulders of the private landowners. Outside of International Paper’s company-owned farms, which no longer exist, replanting what is cut down has always been up to the landowners.

The companies — be it Enviva, Franklin Lumber or International Paper — are not held responsible for making sure the industry is sustainable in any locality.

Quite simply, the landowner plants the trees and sells it to the highest bidding logging company; the logging company sells the timber to the highest bidders, based on the parts or kind of trees; and the company produces what it can out of what it receives. If the landowner chooses to replant, then the cycle continues. Likewise, if he is financially unable to replant or chooses natural regeneration.

Now the question becomes that if not every landowner chooses to replant, is the industry sustainable?