History shows what to expect from an expanding forest industry — unabashed dedication to its own self-interest. That self-interest is sustainable forest management to ensure long-term timber supply. That self-interst is why environemtal groups’ concerns that an expanding wood pellet industry will threaten S.C. forests are at best overblown.
The industry’s earliest history was dominated by lumbermen who cut and ran, leaving land stripped of virgin trees. That essentially is what environmentalists say will happen with pellet mills: They will run out of waste wood and begin to wipe out stands of small hardwood trees (“Groups fear loss of S.C. forests,” June 3).
But these early lumbermen were followed by professional foresters and timber-based industries, which reforested the South and produced today’s splendid forests. There is no reason to think professional foresters won’t continue to produce these splendid forests as new mills move into South Carolina.
For more than a century, timber has been the raw material for one of the state’s most crucial manufacturing sectors. The industries involved have strongly supported well-managed, productive forests to ensure their own supply of raw materials. The notion that this new type of mill would foul its own nest is contrary to forest industry’s track record.
Timber supply is a lot more than current wood inventories and mill demands. The pine plantations and hardwood stands that are today’s timber supply were regenerated decades ago. They represent investments by an earlier generation, and much of the economic motivation of those forest owners was timber price expectation. An appreciation of conservation or commitment to the environment does motivate some, but most forest regeneration requires that expectation of long-term financial return.
While some environmentalists see pellet mills as leading to forest devastation, other see a new market for what was waste wood and non-merchantable small trees. Some areas of South Carolina long have experienced limited markets due to distance from the pulp and paper mills and oriented strand board plants. Forest owners who are discouraged by poor timber markets do not tend to regenerate forests for their children and grandchildren. Vibrant timber markets throughout the state will lead forest owners to actively invest in sustainable forest management.
One main reason pellet mills are not likely to cause the kind of forest and wildlife problems that alarm environmentalists is the planning that goes into the mill location decision. The pattern of pellet mill locations is not random, but based on current and future timber supply projections. These expensive mills are not located where the owners expect to deplete the local timber supply. To the contrary, they are located near underutilized timber supplies, and the owners will strongly support sustainable forest management — not just for the right reasons, but also for their own long-term survival.
Wood pellet mills provide a market for wood waste (much of it left over from large trees as they are cut into lumber) and non-merchantable small trees. Active forest management requires thinning of forest stands as they mature. In many parts of the state, there is no market for this thinned wood. Adding value to larger trees or providing a market for small trees raises future price expectations for forest owners, so they invest more in reforestation.
The intricacies of timber supply and demand will define the changes to the timber market as wood pellet mills continue to expand. The fear that the state’s forests are threatened is unfounded. There will be market adjustments — raw material for pellet mills can also be raw material for paper and OSB mills — and this will increase timber demand and price. Forest owners will be the beneficiaries. They’ll respond by investing more in forestry. It is even reasonable to project some marginal agricultural lands will be converted into forest. In the long run, there well could be more trees in South Carolina, rather than fewer.
Dr. Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University; contact him at email@example.com.