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ODE TO THE OLD NORTH STATE: Where our pine forests get chopped and Enviva grows rich

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Here’s to the land of the longleaf pine…

So begins the official toast of the Old North State. Our relationship with the verdant forests which cover these coastal, mountain and piedmont landscapes goes back centuries—from their early practical uses for naval stores and turpentine, to the current research into the delicate biology of our unique ecosystem, one of the most ecologically diverse to be found anywhere on this planet. We always have loved and benefited from our forests. But now they face a threat even more immediate than global warming, one which threatens to leave our summer land barren, our wildlife homeless, and our great state stripped of the resource defining it more than any other.

THREAT TO ECOLOGICAL DIVERSITY: Pinus palustris, known as the longleaf pine to many, grows tall and proud across North Carolina landscapes. Photo by Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia.

THREAT TO ECOLOGICAL DIVERSITY: Pinus palustris, known as the longleaf pine to many, grows tall and proud across North Carolina landscapes. Photo by Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgia.

Before the end of 2016, multinational corporation Enviva plans to begin use of the two giant glistening white domes recently built at the state port in Wilmington to begin exporting wood pellets overseas to power plants in Europe, specifically England and France. These pellets would be burned as “biomass,” an energy source supposedly more renewable and cleaner than coal.

“By using wood pellets as fuel instead of coal, utilities can reduce the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions of power generation by 80 percent,” said Enviva spokesman Kevin Jenkins in a recent article published by Star News.

This all sounds appealing (who wouldn’t want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?). Well, until we consider the hidden total of all environmental costs associated with the process. First, trees would be cut down (the same trees which are already doing a marvelous and free job of filtering our atmosphere of greenhouse gases like carbon) from forests throughout the southeast, including North Carolina. The trees would then take several rides in large, diesel-burning trucks, from the forests from which they were cut to the plant to be milled, then finally to the port to be shipped. At our port in Wilmington and one in Morehead City, the pellets would subsequently be loaded into the hold of a ship to be ferried across the Atlantic Ocean—a ship in which fuel economy is discussed in terms of gallons per mile, rather than miles per gallon. Finally, they will arrive at their destination across the pond to be loaded into incinerating power plants at a rate less efficient than coal. What does this all mean? More trees would be required to produce the same amount of power. And then they are burned. The process releases the formerly carbon-trapping tree back into the atmosphere as … yep, you guessed it!  Carbon.

Time for another grievance, one even more relevant to us locally. It would be one thing if Enviva obeyed the guidelines they advertised, in which they claim to use only sawdust waste and scrap wood leftover from the milling process to produce pellets. But such has been proven not to be the case. The Dogwood Alliance, a NC nonprofit organization based in Asheville, has followed the lumber trucks and taken pictures of clear-cutting and harvesting done, not from scrap wood or even the more sustainable “tree farms” of quick-growing pine, but from bottomland hardwood forests, “critical habitat for up to 25 different species federally listed as imperiled or endangered.” (National Resources Defense Council). Is keeping the lights on across the ocean a good enough reason to destroy rare hardwood habitat?

The worst part: We, the taxpayers, are paying for the privilege of being plundered. Just up the road in Sampson County, residents are voicing concerns about the recently constructed Enviva pellet plant and what it means for surrounding forests. Some have already been clear cut; the once-arboreal land looks like it was flattened by a tornado. The decision, as it often is, initially was an economic one. Enviva is slated to pay $4.4 million in taxes over the next 10 years in Sampson County. However, they receive an immediate $2.2 million subsidy from the county, and the remainder $2.2 million isn’t much to repair roads which have been damaged by heavy use from logging trucks.

That doesn’t bring into account the drop in quality of life of county residents, as heard in noise pollution from the construction and highway traffic, to atmospheric pollutants in the dirt and dust from grinding up trees all day long. In the end, it’s devastation wreaked on the local forest ecosystem. Yes, much of the forests Enviva is pulling from are on private property, and have been sold by private landowners; property rights in this country are as ancient and sacred as our beloved freedoms of speech and religion. But we must ask ourselves: At what point do the needs of the greater good (a clean, beautiful and quiet place to live) outweigh the pursuit of profit for the few?

The trees are falling now and in our own backyards. We see the proof in our port, our city, our state; ultimately, it’s our forests at risk. When the wool is pulled back, Enviva’s assuaging marketing spin words of “providing jobs” and “eco-friendly”  mean nothing at all. It’s happened before. The analogy to Titan is an easy one, so I’ll go ahead and make it. Also, we stopped them.

Wilmington is our home, and we must fight for it. The land I love is covered with quiet forests and trickling waters. In summertime, the call of the cicadas in our forest fills the warm humid air, perfumed by the scuppernong on the night breeze. Citizens must call their congressmen.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. ML Tate

    January 9, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    Dear Mr. Wolfe:

    I want to thank you for your past articles that I have read in Encore. They’ve been quite interesting to say the least. I found your recent article “Ode To The Old North State” a little troubling. I think your were expressing your opinion about an industry of which you are unfamiliar and haven’t traveled southeastern North Carolina frequently outside of Wilmington.

    I would like to make a disclaimer though. I have worked for over 20 years in the consulting forestry industry with a family business over 45 years old. I am proud to say in my short tenure we have replanted all our harvested tracts with the one exception of a 30 acre tract slated for development; therefore, planting thousands of acres of pine and hardwood trees.

    I think it would pay for you to look a little closer at the actual state of the forest industry in southeastern North Carolina to examine what products are being manufactured and the origin of the raw materials. You may be unaware that last year International Paper in Riegelwood discontinued their use of hardwood pulp/chips. They were using an approximate 60-40% blend and are now at 100% pine pulp/chips. The point I am making is forestry is an integral part of the work and welfare of southeastern North Carolina. We are very lucky that we now have a market for hardwood pulp in Enviva. I would rather see the biomass utilized than left on the forest floor and impede the natural reforestation process.

    Please don’t think I am “slamming” your concerns. I am not, I just think it would have been fair to have mentioned that Enviva has provided a market for this product. A mindful landowner should always consult with the NC Forest Service or a Consulting Forester prior to any potential timber harvest. Thank you for your time.

  2. John Wolfe

    January 13, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Dear Mr. Tate,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my essay. This is exactly the sort of dialogue I was hoping to start when I wrote it. I’m also very glad that you’ve been entertained by my other work. Thanks for reading.

    From what you’ve said, it seems clear that you are certainly more of an expert in the field of local forestry than I am (although in fact I have been fortunate to explore a lot of this region, but I’ll admit that most of it has been nearer water than trees). Many of the facts in this essay came from the Asheville, N.C.-based nonprofit The Dogwood Alliance. They are the group with the reputation for forest experience that I lack. They are the ones who have been putting the boots on the ground, so to speak, and watching Enviva closely for any sign of mistreatment of our forests or deviation from the practices they advertise (which, unfortunately, D.A. claims to have found). As a forestry professional, I would urge you to check out their website, specifically their Forests Aren’t Fuel campaign (https://www.dogwoodalliance.org/campaigns/bioenergy/).

    Admittedly, my own readings have been more about ecology, and how everything is connected to everything else. So while I can’t talk about the specifics of forestry, I maintain that forestry with an emphasis on conservation, which puts best management practices to work for the health of the forest and ecosystem as a whole, is undoubtedly a good thing for all involved. While I understand and concede that some trees must fall, as they always have, the question is where do we find the balance between preservation and profit? How many and what kinds of trees should we use, and how can we be sure that we’re not taking more than we need? We must also remember to account for impacts to wildlife as well as our own pockets; their habitat is growing smaller by the day as more and more green spaces transform into concrete. Even if replanting happens (which by the way, thank you for your replanting work with your family business), where do the wildlife go during the time it takes for the trees to grow back? These aren’t easy questions, and I don’t claim to have the answers to them, but my job as a writer is to raise them in the first place.

    If I didn’t report about the benefits of Enviva, I hope you’ll understand that it was because I felt they had already been voiced. This article was written as a response to what I saw as gaps in the story as it has been reported by other local news outlets. Many of them seem to have only reported the good things about Enviva (economic benefits, the point you raised about having a market for hardwood chips, etc.), and none of the things I mentioned above. I believe the public has a right to hear both sides of a story, good and bad– especially one which affects us all, both through direction of local tax dollars and the larger implications of climate change.

    Ultimately, I think, we all want the same thing: healthy forests (not just trees, but the whole ecosystem: robust habitat for wildlife, clean creeks and streams, quiet and unpolluted air, and nutrient-rich soil) which will be around for years to come. “How should we best go about that?” is a question we all need to answer.

    Thanks again for your response.

    Sincerely,

    John Wolfe

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