In the Pacific Northwest, the federal government can get tough with lumber companies because the forests are publicly owned. Not so in the South, where 85 percent of all timber grows on private lands.
After the federal government drastically slowed logging in the Northwest in the 1990s, Boise-Cascade and other big forest-products companies headed for Dixieland. Now, their focus is on chip mills, whose numbers have tripled since 1985.
Chips make particleboard, paper towels and mail-order catalogs. The relatively low-cost plants can grind 3,000 acres of trees into 250,000 tons of wood chips a year; in 1998, chip mills in 13 Southeastern states from Missouri to Florida consumed more than a million acres of trees.
"It's highly mechanized, it's highly automated. The chip mills get incredible tax breaks for coming into communities," says Trevor FitzGibbon of the Southeast Forest Project, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. And, he says, "they're liquidating the forest."
His group defends native forest ecosystems in the South, where the Forest Service estimates that 36 percent of the region's pine forests already have been converted to tree farms, and that 70 percent will have been converted by 2020. Native hardwoods are faring even worse, since timber companies replace them with fast-growing, chippable pines.
Chip mills use a resource which generations of sawmill owners, furniture makers and other small businessmen depend on for their livelihood. In Tennessee, where hardwood products fuel the second-biggest industry in the state, Robert Walker is a third-generation sawmiller. He mills mature trees of walnut, maple and oak for cabinets and furniture, and now watches his industry decline.
"These young hardwoods are being cut for a lot of what we consider just junk mail," Walker says. "This is like cutting our own throat."