Across the country from where I live in Oregon, my North Carolina friends Jack Spruill and Andy Wood are taking on mighty industrial giants with one power those with only profit motives lack– a love of the land. Jack, a big-hearted forest landowner, and Andy Wood, a naturalist and director of the Coastal Plain Conservation Group, are part of a growing climate justice force dedicated to stopping the clearcutting of bottomland hardwood forests that are feeding the Enviva company’s dirty wood pellet industry—pellets destined for the U.K. to be burned by Drax Biomass, and then to emit more carbon into the air than coal. Logging rates in the Southeast are now four times as great as South American rainforests.
I can think of no other word than “criminal” to label the clearcutting of forests that are globally significant hotspots for biodiversity and havens for the human spirit. These magical forests filter our waters, give us the oxygen we breathe, and remove carbon dioxide from the air to store in tree trunks and roots. Instead of subsidizing the Enviva company to pay landowners to clearcut forests, we ought to pay landowners for the many ecosystem services their native trees and provide. Instead of subsidizing Drax to burn wood, the U.K. government should put every dime into protecting every last tree that’s protecting us—if we’d just keep them standing. The U.S. should do the same.
Why write about a faraway issue from my home in Oregon? I believe everywhere is home—what happens three thousand miles away harms our home, too. I believe, too, that all who are striving to save our intact forests are linked like family—and we ought to get to know each other. We are indeed stronger together.
I also have a personal affinity for the coastal forests of North Carolina, since my parents retired there in the late 1980s. My mom and dad are no longer with me, but I feel their love for this part of the world, and some of their friends have become mine—like Andy and Jack. Through them, I’m coming to know the names and faces of other champions, including Heather Hillaker and Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center; Denzel Burnside and Rita Frost of the Dogwood Alliance; Anita Cunningham of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development; and Priss Endo– along with all the fine folks of the Southern Forests Conservation Coalition.
If I close my eyes and let my mind drift back, I can find myself in the bow of a canoe as my Dad and I paddle a winding arm of the Cape Fear River—serenaded by warblers flitting among leafy trees rising from still dark waters and in rhythm with the thrum of woodpeckers drumming hollow buttressed trees. Or I’m with my parents walking in the Holly Shelter Game Lands that harbor endangered Venus flytraps and red-cockaded woodpeckers among rare long-leaf pines.
When I think of North Carolina’s forests crashing to the ground—and all the life within them—I know we are losing much more than trees that sequester and store carbon—we are losing a breathtaking ecosystem never to be replicated. To know that the biomass and the wood pellet industry are accelerating and gobbling up the last of irreplaceable forests is a tragedy I cannot ignore—even though we have our hands full with logging of our Pacific Northwest forests, too.
Here in Oregon, people have not seen the horrors of biomass on a massive scale yet. They need to know that any embracing of biomass will lead to more logging, more carbon emissions, and more losses of biodiversity and all that will ultimately save us. There’s still time to choose the true solutions—protecting standing forests and embracing solar, wind, and energy conservation.
My 23-year-old niece Rebecca Richie, global network coordinator for the Climate Clock, just returned from Glasgow where she participated in youth protests, indigenous peoples gatherings, visionary strategies, and was interviewed for CBS news (more than once).
Her words on COP26 are prescient—and inspiring. Here’s another CBS quote:
“What is a promise if there’s no action behind it?” Richie, the protester from California, told CBS News. “These promises have become even more empty and meaningless exactly when they need to become more meaningful and powerful and true.“
Becca and I spoke at length by Facetime over the weekend, and afterward? I felt renewed hope for where the power of change lies—with youth and with all who were standing with the likes of Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate.
I am humbled and ready to listen. Wisdom sometimes comes from those who are much younger than we are—with so much at stake and time ticking down. Thank you Becca for calling CO26 what it was–despite a few steps in the right direction, and my gratitude to President Biden for rejoining the Paris Climate Accords. Biomass energy might be the very worst of the false solutions. If you have not seen the 30-minute free version of “BURNED: Are Trees the New Coal?”, please watch this documentary and share with others.
I am proud of my niece, too, for coming home fired up for change and full of world-changing ideas. She is ready to confront what’s false, while holding up a dream of what the world could be like… one that follows indigenous tenets of a gift economy and reciprocity as described in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass… a far cry from logging and burning trees.
Here are just a few facts to illustrate why biomass is a false solution:Dogwood Alliance
• Over a million acres of forest have already been cut in the US to feed the biomass industry.
• Biomass production facilities are twice as likely to occur in environmental justice communities.
• At the end of 2020, 88 million tons of carbon dioxide had been emitted from the production and combustion of biomass from US trees.
These are not the messages the heavily subsidized biomass industry will tell you. They want to win us over with their “false assurances,” as environmental champion Rachel Carson wrote in 1962 within Silent Spring, the book that led to the banning of the pesticide DDT–a success that overcame seemingly impossible odds. In her words, “We urgently need an end to these false assurances, to the sugar coating of unpalatable facts.”
Not much has changed since 1962 when it comes to big companies giving false assurances—like Enviva Biomass claiming their forest practices are sustainable and labeling the native hardwood wetland forests “low-value” trees—meaning value measured in lumber values, not in ecosystem and carbon values. When I click on the Enviva website, the banner reads: “Displace Coal. Grow more trees. Fight climate change.”
Enviva is bargaining that the more they proclaim their greenness, the more people will believe the lies. Armed with massive taxpayer subsidies, they are doing everything they can to buy community support, like a free turkey giveaway in Ahoskie, North Carolina, this Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Enviva is busily clearcutting wetland forests around Ahoskie to produce 400,000 tons of wood pellets annually for export to Europe.
The more I learn about the growing resistance to Enviva, the more reason I have to be hopeful. The Dogwood Alliance is one group exposing the truth about the logging and the pollutants that are being spewed into the communities. Their courageous acts reveal the lies Enviva wants to hide. By finding the forests to be logged and following log trucks to the plant, the brave investigators are Enviva’s worst nightmare. The company depends on people eating the free turkeys and turning a blind eye.
There’s nothing like documenting what’s happening on the ground. I’m a strong believer in going out into the field and bringing policymakers and journalists to see what’s at stake and what’s being destroyed. We simply have to get people away from computer screens and into the field. (See my blog on the Lostine River logging).
This is what it takes. Invite journalists and policymakers to walk the streets of the communities where the world’s largest biomass producer Enviva operates wood pellet plants belching choking dust and invisible fine pollutants. Let them breathe the polluted air, and see firsthand who is exposed–mostly black and brown and under-served communities.
This is what it takes. Invite reporters on a boat tour led by experts who give the facts behind the gargantuan domes at the Wilmington port containing wood pellets to be shipped abroad to feed biomass utilities, especially Drax, the U.K’s biggest carbon emitter. From Enviva to Drax, the disdain for our life-giving forests is the same: writing off centuries-old trees as expendable, worthless, dead, dying, diseased, and without economic value. The tour led to more stories. Here in Oregon, I turned on National Public Radio to hear Andy Wood quoted: “Burning wood pellets isn’t the ‘clean energy’ it claims to be, critics say.”
The news from North Carolina advocates is resonating like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond. We are catching the vibrations and know that we are all in the same pool. I hope, too, that here in the Pacific Northwest we will reach across the miles to support all who are fighting Enviva biomass in the Southeast and all who are standing for the trees will link arms–branches of solidarity. We will be like the wild forest. We will stand for the trees.
Biomass—still wondering? I highly recommend the October 2021, Chatham House Report: Greenhouse gas emissions from burning US-sourced woody biomass in the EU and UK
Please support Coastal Plain Conservation Group, Dogwood Alliance, Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Southern Forests Conservation Coalition.
What I’m Reading Now: The Forest Unseen, by David George Haskell. Each morning I open up to a new entry of Haskell’s lyrical observations of one square meter of a forest and linked to relevant science that is equally stunning to read. I offer this book to all who might wonder, What is the “value” of a wild forest?
Below are a few more of my photos from a visit to the Dave Richie Landing in 2016–the sign is no longer there, following one of the subsequent storms, but the forests are protected, because of my Dad’s efforts working with the developer of a subdivision to keep the natural forests along the creek intact. The Cross Creek Homeowners Association owns two parcels of land adjacent to Harrisons Creek and Spring Branch, tributaries of the Northeast Cape Fear River. The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust holds a perpetual conservation easement on one 80-acre parcel and the adjacent 1.5-acres is the shallow-water boat ramp–the Dave Richie Landing.
“If I close my eyes and let my mind drift back, I can find myself in the bow of a canoe as my Dad and I paddle a winding arm of the Cape Fear River—serenaded by warblers flitting among leafy trees rising from still dark waters and in rhythm with the thrum of woodpeckers drumming hollow buttressed trees.” When I close my eyes and drift back I end up wandering sage steppe areas replete with it’s denizens like Greater Sage Grouse, Pronghorn and Mule Deer, with my grandfather that are now acres of cheat grass, paved roads and sub-divisions.
Wonderful article and dead on point. Also great to see your niece Becca carrying on the family tradition!
Great research and writing on a huge public and environmental policy matter. Thank you. Marina!
A well researched story. Thanks for all the info. I had read about this while in the UK this summer..
Great pos. Enjoy Mexico. Jan
Jan Hodder 5412970664
Right on, Marina. Thank you for calling a spade a spade, and calling out the green-washed destruction of forests that’s being passed off as climate-friendly. Criminal indeed.
Totally agree with you on this. A number of scientists have looked at this industry, and decried its false advertising. Shipping wood pellets from US to UK in the name of lowering carbon emissions just does not add up. Its not just the south. Its also going on in the NE. Charles Canham a renowned senior scientist at the Carey Institute for Ecosystem Studies has been doing a lot of good work on this issue. He just gave a webinar on this topic last week. BTW I love Haskells writing. His other book “songs of trees” I read last year. Great scientist philosopher and writer.
Thank you Marina, and Rebecca! We all wish you were writing only about the wonders of our region’s wetland and other natural forests of “low-value” trees. Low-value indeed! Low value is when a corporation treats living trees as just another resource to exploit for personal fun and profit (corporate personhood), regardless of consequential harms that befall others; notably the diversity of life in forests that do the heavy lifting of moving energy through the ecological life support system keeping us alive here on Earth.
I digress. Thank you, is all I meant to say,