Biological mountaintop removal: making way for a human-purposed forest approximation with profit and not forests in mind

When Forests Disappear

It bothered me to know that, because it had been clearcut, the plant community that is intended for that acreage long after we’re gone from our place in northeastern Floyd County (VA) will not be like the one so recently eliminated by the thrumming machinery of industrial logging. The stand of pines in mind for a generation from now will be an aggregate of trees but, in many senses of the word, it will not be a forest at all. And even more alarming is the possibility that clearcutting as a forestry practice is on a rapid rise both in our forests and in the rainforests of the tropics, with western Europe, as we’ll see, getting the benefits from our deforested woodlands.

A mixed hardwood-and-conifer forest in our part of the world will, if left to its own nature after selective timber harvest, come back to a mature forest of hardwoods and scattered white pines. But shade-intolerant pines only grow close and straight where hardwoods do not shade out these higher-dollar faster growing evergreens. And so with profit in mind, natural hardwood stump regrowth is typically suppressed by the application of herbicides. This made me wonder.

Was this clearcut so close to us sprayed? We learned from a local forester that the clearcut was indeed sprayed last summer, with herbicide mixture by helicopter (about 11 gallons per acre). We had not known. The logging company is apparently under no requirements to inform adjacent land owners in advance.

Asked his opinion about the use of clearcutting as a forestry practice in the Blue Ridge, the forester I spoke to stated that “there is not enough of it to suit me.” And so the kind of future land use I describe here is likely to be in increasing deployment across the county and the region and beyond as long as metric tons of fiber is the prevailing measure of worth of an acre of standing hardwoods.

The biology and chemistry of forests work to the good — for our air and our water, our soil and our senses. We should see ourselves as both consumers and stewards of this living community and environmental service provider we know as forests. They are a feature so common in our part of the world that we tend to take them for granted. We shouldn’t.

Sixty four percent of Floyd County is forested (that’s some 156 thousand acres of trees), and all of it (save for the strip along the Blue Ridge Parkway) is owned and its fate determined by people like you and me. The second part of this four-part series will consider some of those costs and benefits of the ways we use today’s and tomorrow’s forests, even as we live pleasantly surrounded by them for the time being.

I share this issue for consideration because I am curious to explore a few relevant and timely questions about future land use. It’s a complex issue — the care for this private forest whose invisible boundaries mark contiguous plots that are private but whose benefits cross those lines of ownership; whose benefits are public and shared by all — perhaps the most obvious of which is the beauty of our wooded ridges and valleys and coves that give this place its character in every season, for residents and visitors alike.

Cluster of red and orange (cicle lower left) show steep logged land in northeastern Floyd County VA. FORwarn imagery

What Goes Missing?

What goes missing when a clearcut takes everything away from our ridges, slopes or valleys?

The environmental impact of this nearby logging was far too close to home for me to look away and pretend it was of no consequence. The treatment of this landscape impact our drinking water. Our valley floor’s residential wells may draw some or much of their volume from the fractured rock under the adjacent acreage. And about the many hundreds of gallons of herbicides that wafted widely in the prop-wash of a helicopter: do those chemicals really break down and leave no residue to enter our groundwater? How can we know that for sure?

There is sudden and drastic biological disruption to any given acre after it is clearcut. The moisture and temperature of the ground surface, once shaded and blanketed with leaf litter, is altered profoundly. Once a sponge for rainfall, the newly-bare disturbed ground will not absorb or hold a heavy rainfall like humus does. That heavy storm instead will send water across the surface into the nearest muddied tributary of the Little (or in our case the Roanoke) River.

I wondered: What was being taken away with each log that passed our house on the countless tandem-trailer loads of poplar and pine? Tally hundreds of gallons of root-pulled water still in each poplar or pine saw log (equal to about 45% of its green weight); add to that the cost of what the soil had provided in minerals now being carried away around the bend in each log’s fibers and fluids.

Include among the hidden costs the lost oxygen that the leaves will no longer breathe out as the living tree had done over its forty or more summers growing in place. Subtract from the ledger of former benefits the shade, the absent humus layer, the lost cooling and obliterated habitat to a host of arboreal and ground-dwelling animals.

Thousands of holes in the canopy pass out of our valley on wheels.

I thought especially about the fate of thousands of salamanders (some of you might call them spring lizards) who hold a special place in my biologist’s heart. They are now bereft of shade and coolness, trapped in place to perish by their short legs and their requirement for constant moisture to move over land. The pity, as these small and rarely-seen amphibians are essential in the food webs of many forest animals. Lost biodiversity is perhaps the most irreplaceable cost of hundreds of thousands of national acres of clearcut landscape.

And so we must ask: Is “the forest” an ecosystem of relationships providing environmental services regulating the water, the oxygen, the carbon dioxide and the mix of plant and animal variety it harbors; or is forest merely a wooded abstraction and nothing more than a crop managed with profit in and the invisible costs out of mind?

Even above and beyond these considerations of the conditions and future of the bald above us, I was alarmed to think about the fate of the missing small shrubs and trees. The stumps were even gone. Was it possible that they were already being pulverized into wood pellets (forestry biomass) to reach cargo ships on their way to energy plants in Europe? Were US energy companies already turning forests into fuel? Answering these questions was my chief reason to explore the matter and write out my concerns here in the first place.

Later, we will consider the potential consequences of pellets being exported from Floyd County’s and other southeast forests for domestic or foreign use. And finally, we’ll look at some of the options that might provide benefits and profit from standing or sustainably-harvested mixed woods that do not sacrifice the forest for the trees.

Our Forests Are Not Fuel

The familiar in Floyd is forest. Look out your window from where you sit. Most likely, you’ll see standing trees scattered over ridges in your view, a palette of greens presiding above pastured valleys. Now squint a little and humor me with this little exercise: Imagine no forest out there, only the bare bones of bedrock in your view. That mental change of view — with and without forests — helps me appreciate how much of our sense of WHERE we live is held in the oaks and poplars and white pines that make up our natural community in Floyd County.

Wood is a marvelous and remarkably useful material. In all its uses and products and services (including such taken-for-granted simple pleasures as shade) wood, along with water, makes Earth what it is to us. But wood, too is big business. The high demand for extraction of wood from the forest for framing, fiber, furniture and fuel is achieved by greater and greater efficiency of modern extraction and processing technologies. Its anticipated growth is insured by the money it will make for shareholders seeking the high profit that comes from the most efficient methods of turning forests into dollars.

The market drives and directs the fate of forest extraction of saw logs and wood waste. Follow the money. And where that trail leads in recent years and the more in the coming ones is to our forests’ final end as pellets.

On the face of it, the path towards the production of wood pellets is quite “green.” The notion is that wood is a carbon-neutral fuel. Burn up a tree today for its heat energy releasing CO2. A generation later it’s carbon dioxide payback puts that amount of CO2 back into a new tree and to the soil — a tree’s worth of carbon out, then back in. On the larger scale, given trust in that kind of accounting, if Europe (or our local Dominion) generates electricity by burning wood pellets from our forests as “carbon-neutral forestry biomass” they meet their carbon goals. Just swap wood carbon for coal carbon using the existing energy plants. Done deal.

It’s the path of least resistance perhaps. But it is powered by what many believe to be false assumptions that would sacrifice future forests. True accounting for all the energy inputs from woodlot to cargo ship show wood to be a less efficient and less clean fuel than coal or natural gas. Biomass burning power plants emit one and a half times the CO2 of coal, and three to four times the CO2 of natural gas, per unit energy produced. That said, solar and wind are much closer to carbon neutral energy sources after manufacture and installation of components.

The UK imports 7.5 million tons of pellets annually, most from the Southeastern US. When burned these growing mountains of wood pellets put CO2 immediately into the air, adding more rather than resulting in less greenhouse gases for years. This pushes the atmosphere and earth’s forests, tundra, coral reefs and other biomes further towards critical tipping points. Be aware that locally, Dominion’s energy plant in Pittsylvania VA is one of the largest biomass power stations on the East Coast so forests-to-pellets for electricity generation is a domestic concern as well.

Our forests — on Goose Creek, in Floyd County, in the Southern Appalachians and on Planet Earth — stand at risk for being aggressively mined for energy in addition to our undiminished hunger for paper fiber and construction lumber. The science supporting forests-for-fuel export to meet carbon goals is controversial and I think flawed. Now is the time to do our homework so we make wise decisions for the common good — for future generations as well as for our own well-being today.

So look back out your window through your imagination lenses one more time. And this time, see that owners of two or three out of every five wooded properties in your view has said yes to future take-all pelletizers. And whole trees are now being used (this is not imaginary) which speeds up the potential for forest loss. Not a pretty picture. Your wooded vista is pocked with mangy patches of herbicide-treated bare earth. This exercise is not far-fetched. It has happened all over the Deep South and the world and it could happen here.

Harvested woodlots can be sustained as intact forest communities. There are ways all of society benefits from resilient forest ecosystems, and even ways landowners can profit from their wooded landscapes without extracting the timber.

Intended Forests

A French writer-historian and visitor to America in 1791 made the observation about human civilizations that “forests precede us; deserts follow us.” It is a good time to take the long view of what we want to happen here, now, lest we create the deserts that we do not intend. Armed with this intention and hope, there is opportunity to be wise and responsible stewards of today’s and of tomorrow’s forest. And yet…

Global forests are stressed unlike any before in the short history of mankind by climate shift and resulting drought, insect pests, wildfires and disease. As the planet’s forests are diminished in size and their health declines, we lose potential benefits of natural forest products (especially new medicines); we lose their thousands of square miles of greenhouse gas mitigation; we lose the oxygen that they once produced. We lose their shelter, their beauty and their solace.

As world habitat is lost, populations of resident rainforest and temperate forest creatures decline or go extinct at unprecedented rates, save for during the previous five major extinctions over the past 600 million years.

While this may sound like a problem only for our most massive chunks of Earth’s forest, even the clearcutting of smaller Floyd-County sized parcels add their impact to the planet’s total burden of declining forest health and resiliency. We live in a microcosmic patch of the world’s forests. How we care for it impacts more than just our own view-shed, watershed, or bank balance.

So what choices can we make as landowners? Are options available other than the whole-cloth sale of our standing trees to pay our taxes or the mortgage? Here are a few options. I trust you to take the initiative to explore further on your own, perhaps starting with the resource list included with this series:

► Conservation Easements can protect and preserve your land and offer financial benefits not requiring you to cut your forests. See NRV and Blue Ridge Land Trusts for details.

► NFTP: Non-forestry timber products. Search the phrase online. Grayson and Carroll are leading the way locally. Tree syrups, medicinal plants, fungi and many other natural products have significant value from an intact forest. Even the everywhere-invasive, Autumn Olive, can apparently be a cash crop!

► Worst First Horse Logging operates by careful selection and low-impact extraction of timber, tree by tree, leaving the value of your woodlot to increase over time rather than offering a once-and-done sale of the best first.

► Environmental Credit Markets for value of uncut forests will someday be an available option to the landowner. The comforting and pleasant appearance of an intact wooded vista is just one of its “services” that the landowner should be compensated for in exchange for not removing the forest from the view-shed. Water retention, carbon storing, biodiversity and cooling are also of great value. These are services we cannot practically cause to happen otherwise.

► Better rules and (beyond today’s voluntary) enforcement of “best management practices” for wise stewardship among forestry professionals. If we desire resilient forests that have value apart from board feet of lumber, we will spend more on forest-related jobs, education and by agreeing on consistent standards to which all landowners and forest professionals and timber extractors are committed.

► Lastly: Ask questions before you offer up your timber rights. What will be left above ground and below ground and downstream when the job is done? How will the work impact your view-shed, your well, and erosion into your streams? Will your land be clearcut, and if so, will it be sprayed with herbicide? Will the wood go to pellets to meet ill-conceived energy plans that benefit American and European utilities while diminishing the long-term health of people who live surrounded by the forested Appalachians ridges and valleys?

Our great grandparents can be forgiven for their ignorance of the possibility that humankind could possibly alter land and sea, soil and atmosphere in the shocking ways our Earth-orbiting satellites and instruments have recently revealed to us. My generation will not be so easily forgiven. This is our watch. Tomorrow will shine the light on our engagement or on our indifference today. Will we we be known as wise or foolish servants when it comes to our forests?

This essay was published in four parts (March 30 to April 20, 2017) in the Floyd Press (Floyd County Virginia) and is offered as a single piece for those who have requested it.



Most wood energy schemes are a ‘disaster’ for climate change — BBC News Feb 2017

Using wood pellets to generate low-carbon electricity is a flawed policy that is speeding up not slowing down climate warming.

Our Forests Aren’t Fuel | Dogwood Alliance

Massachusetts Environmental Groups to EPA — Treating Bioenergy as Having Zero Emissions Undermines the Science | Partnership for Policy Integrity

Carbon emissions | Partnership for Policy Integrity

Is biomass “Worse than coal”? Yes, if you’re interested in reducing carbon dioxide emissions anytime in the next 40 years.

Letter to the Senate on carbon neutrality of forest biomass | Woods Hole Research Center

Woody Biomass for Power and Heat Impacts on the Global Climate


Why Did the Mayan Civilization Collapse? A New Study Points to Deforestation and Climate Change | Science | Smithsonian

Amazon Deforestation, Once Tamed, Comes Roaring Back — The New York Times

The Rise and Fall of Civilizations

Just as has been documented for many past civilizations, the inevitable consequences of our current lifestyles will be societal collapse accompanied by tremendous human suffering. The difference between past civilizations and ours is only quantitative: this time, resource depletion is occurring on a global scale.

Forests Precede Us, Deserts Follow | Collapse of Industrial Civilization

When forests aren’t really forests: the high cost of Chile’s tree plantations

Deforestation and Its Effect on the Planet

New Deforestation Hot Spots in the World’s Largest Tropical Forests — Medium


Giving credit where credit is due: increasing landowner compensation for ecosystem services link to pdf

Ecosystem services — Wikiwand

When forests aren’t really forests: the high cost of Chile’s tree plantations

Ecosystems Services Calculator ~ Virginia Tech Dept of Forestry


Creating Non-timber Forest Product Industries in the Blue Ridge Plateau — Appalachian Foodshed Project

Katie Trozzo is a PhD student at Virginia Tech

“ Over the last year, our NTFP network has grown to over 100 members including farmers, residents, local agencies, and non-profits. We have mobilized by piloting different projects such as harvesting, processing, and marketing autumn olive berries and hybrid hazelnuts, but have yet to truly formalize our network.”

Non-timber Forest Products | Know Your Forest

Nontimber Forest Product Resources for Small Forestland Owners and Businesses


Blue Ridge Land Conservancy — Home

New River Land Trust


Healing Harvest Forest Foundation — Restorative Forestry — Healing Harvest Forest Foundation

About Us | Foundation for Sustainable Forests

Taking the “Worst First,” Leaving the Best to Grow « Appalachian Voices