Rising Demand for Southeast Trees Endangers U.S. Wildlife and Biodiversity
The rapid development of woody biomass energy facilities in the Southeast U.S. has large implications for regional land cover and wildlife habitat, says a new study by three major Southern universities, released today by National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).
The Southeastern U.S. is currently experiencing what is likely the world’s most rapid growth in the development of woody biomass energy facilities, with wood pellet exports from Southern ports increasing 70 percent last year—making the Southern U.S. the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world.
Forestry Bioenergy in the Southeast United States: Implications for Wildlife Habitat and Biodiversity is a first-of-its-kind, landmark study which examines the potential wildlife and biodiversity impacts of this expanding industry and points to policy measures that may minimize impacts.
“The surge in demand for Southeast trees is being driven by government incentives—here and abroad—designed to encourage renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forestry programs at the NWF. “This study shows that wildlife like the brown-headed nuthatch and eastern spotted skunk are at risk from this rapidly growing industry if policies are not put in place to ensure more sustainable sourcing solutions.”
To help answer the question “How is biomass sourcing impacting wildlife and biodiversity?”, the NWF and the SELC commissioned an independent scientific study by a multi-disciplinary team from three major Southeastern land grant universities—University of Georgia, University of Florida and Virginia Tech.
“One of the biggest concerns raised by the report is escalating pressure for cutting bottomland hardwood forests," said David Carr, general counsel of SELC. "Locating facilities in the coastal plain dependent on forested wetlands raises major concerns regarding the impacts on birds, aquatic species and other wildlife associated with forested wetlands, which have declined dramatically over time."
"Despite claims to the contrary, Enviva is sourcing whole trees from forested wetlands to serve its Ahoskie, NC, facility and its two other facilities with overlapping sourcing areas—one in Northampton County, NC, and one in Southampton County, VA," Carr continued. "The study confirms that Enviva’s location and reliance on hardwoods is likely to have devastating impacts on wetlands and wildlife, particularly birds.”
The researchers analyzed land cover and determined areas of highest risk of harvesting around six facilities located in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, with sourcing areas stretching into Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. The researchers then applied various limits on biomass sourcing to evaluate how each scenario would overlap with habitat for several wildlife species of conservation concern.
Key findings from the study include:
- Major conservation concerns for biomass in the Southeast are land cover change away from existing natural forest stands into planted pines, harvesting in wetlands, and uncertain habitat impacts from increased use of residual logging materials.
- All of the operations studied have the potential to alter wildlife habitat and impact biodiversity in the absence of sustainable sourcing policies.
- For facilities using planted pine trees, risks to native forests and wildlife habitat can be decreased through adoption of existing sustainable forest management standards that preclude native forest conversion.
- Sourcing of natural forest stands for bioenergy may pose more serious conservation challenges. Increased harvest of riparian and other wetland forests for bioenergy may pose especially high risks to wildlife habitat and forest regeneration. New sustainability policies may be needed to ensure conservation of wetland forest habitats under increasing bioenergy sourcing pressure.
The study points to several existing sustainability programs that could be the basis for wildlife-protective sourcing policies. These include the Forest Stewardship Council forest management certification and certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. The study points out, however, that there are no current policies that require such sustainability standards to be used.
“Without sustainable sourcing criteria, increased bioenergy sourcing in Southeast forests could exacerbate historic practices such as conversion of natural upland forests to planted pines and intensive logging of forested wetlands,” said Jason Evans, environmental sustainability analyst at University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. “These practices are known to have negative impacts on a number of wildlife species."
"However, regular thinning of existing planted pines for bioenergy use could also improve habitat conditions for some species of concern, such as the northern bobwhite quail," Evans continued. "The methods and results of this study provide guidance for up front evaluation of such risks and opportunities as new bioenergy facilities are being planned across the region.”
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
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For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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