Western Tidewater’s forest sustainability by the numbers

Published 9:49 am Saturday, April 11, 2015

by Neil Clark

As current chair of the Virginia Division of the Society of American Foresters, a board member of the Virginia Forestry Association and an educator on forest management and sustainability for eastern Virginia, I felt the need to provide a bit of additional information and clarification to the April 4 Tidewater News article titled “Is the wood product industry sustainable in Western Tidewater?”

And the short answer is “yes” at current conditions. In fact it would not hurt to have some additional markets in certain categories, particularly sawtimber and other wood products utilizing larger trees, however the data shows more than sufficient supply at current and forecasted demand levels.

A few additional points that I believe require clarification from the article begin with the following. The term deforestation according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the action or process of clearing forests.” Unfortunately this is a short but incomplete definition, as it gives no timeline, but the inherent assumption is that of land conversion where there is no plan for regeneration of future forests.

So the harvest of trees in eastern Virginia where new stands of forests are regenerated should not be termed deforestation, unless the land is converted to other uses or is degraded to the extent that the next generation of trees are impaired (this is rare, but something we preach on to landowners, foresters and loggers). I can say that well over 95 percent of the forested areas that are harvested in eastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina are replanted in areas where pine management is most appropriate, or allowed to naturally regenerate where hardwood trees are desired.

Which leads to my second clarification with the April 4 article. Even though it was brought out in the article, the juxtaposition of Enviva using hardwoods for pellets, next to the explanation of the seed tree law, which ensures adequate regeneration in predominantly pine acreage is confusing. Many in the general public do not realize that hardwood trees regenerate on their own from stump sprouts as well as seeds in the soil. In fact, most people are surprised when we discourage them from planting hardwood seedlings in their freshly harvested land where hardwoods have previously grown. The reality is that there is no way a oneyear-old rootstock or a seed from the seed stored in the soil (acorns mentioned in April 4 article) is going to compete with a sprout from a 50 year-old rootstock, which is what you get when you cut a hardwood tree. This is why when you look across this beautiful state of Virginia and see 62 percent of the total land area, and 79 percent of that in hardwood trees despite every acre having been cut at least once, and in most cases, four to six times since the European settlement in Jamestown in 1607, hardly none of those magnificent trees were planted. When it comes to temperate hardwood forests, nature largely takes care of itself. In fact, timber harvesting replicates natural disturbances that occur when trees blow down. Anyone remember Isabelle or Irene? Or back when raging wildfires were allowed to kill (and naturally regenerate) thousands of acres?

The main reason that the Virginia Department of Forestry and private nurseries grow hardwood seedlings is for planting in new areas where trees have not previously occupied. I have talked to many an exasperated party who could not understand why the black walnut they planted became swallowed up by the red maple and sweet gum that sprouted from the stumps in their recently harvested property.

Another manner of confusion that I took away from the April 4 article was the fact that it sounded like 100 percent of the mill demands were coming from Southampton County. In reality each mill draws from a “wood basket,” which is usually weighted and constrained by the costs of hauling heavy, bulky, wet wood.

This is sometimes pictured as a radius around a mill location, but more realistically follows road networks and avoids high population, high property value and highly regulated areas. This is the main issue impacting sustainability for wood products industries in the Western Tidewater area, increasing population growth and land fragmentation caused by residential construction. Areas where 100 acres of working forests turn into 10 house lots of 10 acres each affect sustainability. The new urban forests supply some amenity benefits, but no reliable wood supply for a mill. This is why intelligent zoning and land use should be on the forefront of our minds in Western Tidewater.

And now some numbers to back up my claim of sustainability for eastern Virginia forests. These data are from the USDA Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis group, which works with the state forestry agencies to compile a statistically sound national forest inventory. You can find the latest 2013 Virginia update at http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/47813. This shows the coastal plain area (rough line is east of I-95, up to King George County) adds 310 million cubic feet (7 million tons) of wood on timberlands (cities and dense residential excluded), comprised of 190 million cubic feet of softwoods and 120 million cubic feet of hardwoods, each year. This is new growth, not inventory. And this does not count North Carolina volume, which assuredly adds to available supply, but also to demand. The pertinent number for sustainable supply is growth to removal ratio, which has ranged between 1.6 and 2.0 for the last several decades for hardwoods (and pines for that matter, but again that is another category). Adding natural mortality brings us down to 1.0 to 1.2 for hardwoods. This indicates harvests are at most annual growth less mortality and adding 20 percent per year at best. And this is above the “inventory” of 172 million oven dry tons (approximately 340 million green tons) of biomass (pine and hardwood combined) that is “in the bank” in the coastal plain forest. This is enough wood to run the current fiber mills in the area for over 70 years if we assumed no growth. As it is, the mills are only “working off of the annual interest, without dipping into the principal” of this endowment. That seems sustainable by definition. Of course a series of major storm events or a biological insect or disease outbreak could put a wrinkle in these numbers, which is why landowners managing and thinning to maintain a healthy forest is also essential to a sustainable future.

I hope that these data help to provide some confidence that area mills are producing in a sustainable manner (and then some) at current rates of harvest, with a bit of breathing room. I would also encourage people to educate themselves about forest sustainability from academic and agency sources which provide unbiased information. And I would encourage landowners of timber to speak to professional foresters whether part of governmental agencies or private consultants who are members of the Society of American Foresters about sustainable forest management. And lastly for the general public to appreciate these private landowners and producing mills which help to provide necessary products, clean water (yes this is land your drinking water flows through), wildlife, aesthetic and ecosystem benefits, as well as an important employment and economic engine for the area.

Neil Clark lives in Sedley and is the extension forester for eastern Virginia and interim extension agent for Southampton County. He can be reached at 653-2572 or southeast@vt.edu.