Allen Hershkowitz, PhD, is a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of Bronx Ecology: Blueprint for a New Environmentalism.

Monday, 15 Sep 2003

ASHEVILLE, N.C.

Having just returned last week from four days hiking in, driving through, and flying above the forests of eastern Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau, today I find myself flying down to Asheville, N.C. My Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) colleague Dan Saccardi and I will be meeting with half a dozen smart activists from the Dogwood Alliance, a pro-recycling, forest-protection organization based in Asheville. Besides our friends at Dogwood, Dan and I will be joined by two other NRDC colleagues — forestry experts Sami Yassa and Debbie Hammel — who are jetting in from San Francisco, as well as PhD’s from the Oregon-based Conservation Biology Institute, aviators from SouthWings, biology professors from the University of the South, and backwoods researchers from Tennessee ForestWatch.

What are we up to? Well, the short answer is that we’re gathering to review months, and many tens of thousands of dollars worth, of original research that we’ve commissioned or generated ourselves to help figure out how we can stop one of the Earth’s most biologically outstanding eco-regions — the temperate broadleaf forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains that comprise the Cumberland Plateau — from being converted into toilet paper and other disposable paper products.

Yup, you read that right: Throughout North America and the world, natural, biologically diverse, and irreplaceable forests — in some cases old-growth, never-harvested forests that host some of the world’s most inspiring and important species and freshwater eco-regions — are being converted into toilet paper. We are literally flushing down the toilet some of the most biologically rich habitat on Earth. And, by the way, these same forests are also being cut down, or converted into biologically sterile tree plantations (which typically host 90 percent fewer species per acre than do the natural forests they replace), to supply the wood that makes the daily newspaper you casually read and discard, chic fashion and travel magazines, mail-order catalogues, copier paper, and advertising inserts.

Most North Americans equate biodiversity with exotic, faraway places like tropical rainforests, which contain perhaps as many as half of all known species. However, the other half of the Earth’s species live outside tropical rainforests in biologically unique ecosystems, of which the southeastern forests of North America are among the most globally outstanding. While our fight to halt the loss of primary rainforests in the tropics is well known, these southeastern forests are under equally heavy pressure from logging and conversion to tree plantations. Losing these rare ecosystems, as we are, is instigating a globally significant loss of biodiversity.

The temperate broadleaf forests of the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains, the Cumberland Plateau and its environs, host some of the most globally outstanding concentrations of terrestrial and freshwater habitat for an astoundingly diverse array of flora and fauna. The Plateau, which stretches from northern Alabama, through Tennessee and Kentucky, and into southwestern West Virginia, hosts literally hundreds of endemic forest and aquatic species, including 21 amphibians. It’s home to a wide range of snails and salamanders and is part of the central migration habitat route for neotropical songbirds. Among the rare, endangered, or threatened species that are native to the Plateau are the red wolf (Canis niger), the eastern cougar (felis concolor couguar), the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), the Virginia big-eared bat (Plecotus townsendii virginianus), and the loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus).

Sadly, much of the great forest that once cloaked the entire southeastern United States has been logged, replaced by degraded landscapes and biologically impoverished single-species tree plantations. The remaining endangered forests in the Plateau and its environs represent the last refuges in the southeast for Red wolf and the Easter cougar, and they represent as well one of the last great storehouses of biological diversity in North America. The Cumberland Plateau is nothing less than a biological gem.

Our meeting in Asheville during the next couple of days will help NRDC, the Dogwood Alliance, Tennessee ForestWatch, and our other grassroots partners in the southeast design the most effective strategy to communicate with large consumers of toilet paper, newsprint, and other types of papers, in order to put pressure on paper companies that obtain their raw materials from these outstanding southeastern forests. Our goal is to get these transnational corporations and absentee landowners to shift their raw material sourcing and production away from the biologically irreplaceable ecosystems found in the Cumberland Plateau and, instead, rely on post-consumer recycled paper fibers or ecologically superior agricultural residues for their raw materials.

In tomorrow’s diary I’ll tell you more than you’ll want to know about why my colleagues and I at NRDC have been working hard to change the paper industry, the principal industrial pressure destroying the Cumberland Plateau and indisputably one of the most ecologically destructive industries on Earth. (You can also learn about my views on the paper industry by reading my recent book, Bronx Ecology: Blueprint for a New Environmentalism, with a forward by Maya Lin, published by Island Press.)