Kent Roberson’s family has farmed, hunted and lived on the same piece of land in Williamston, North Carolina, since 1898.
It is home to stables, a camp site, a frisbee golf course, as well as 140-year-old hardwood and pine trees.
In the last decade however, Roberson’s 30 acres has become a haven of biodiversity in an increasingly desolate landscape. All around him the area is being decimated by logging to produce wood pellets to feed the insatiable EU market, which has grown since the EU introduced the Renewable Energy Directive in 2009.
As well as the wider harm Roberson sees to the ecologically rich wetlands and forests of North Carolina’s coastal plains, the area’s transformation has had a more direct impact on him.
The loss of surrounding trees has left his forest land more exposed than ever to extreme weather events; clearcutting has exacerbated problems with flooding and storms; the habitat no longer supports the small game which he once hunted; while the logging trucks which pass by his home every five minutes have damaged the roads and left cracks in his bathroom tiles.
If the demand for imports of wood pellets from the southern US states intensifies under the RED, Roberson fears things will only get worse.
Key facts: Biomass, the South East United States and the EU
● The biomass company Enviva’s Ahoskie wood pellet manufacturing plant is located 50 miles north of Kent Roberson’s property. According to Enviva’s Track & Trace website, Enviva sources some of its wood from his surrounding area.
● Enviva owns and operates seven plants strategically located in the southeast United States that produce over 3 million metric tons of wood pellets annually, and primarily exports pellets to power plants in the United Kingdom and other European countries that were once fuelled by coal.
● The United States is the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets, most of which are destined for the EU.
● US wood pellet exports totalled 5.1 billion kilogrammes with a value of $666 million in 2017; this was an increase of 78.4% by quantity and 79.6% by value from its exports in 2013. Of the U.S. wood pellet exports in 2017, 99.1% by quantity went to the EU, predominantly the United Kingdom (80%), Belgium (10.5%), and Denmark (7.3%).
● A study published by the European Commission in 2016 highlighted the risks of EU imports of wood pellets from the South East US. These included threats to biodiversity, of deforestation and forest degradation, as well as reduced resource efficiency and increased greenhouse gas emissions. It showed that the EU’s bioenergy demand is likely to increase the pressure on hardwood forests in the Southeast US.
“I’ve had different jobs, including as an electrician, telephone repairman and animal control officer. Some years ago I realized I wanted to be able to be on my land and make a living. I fenced off our farm fields, and started boarding horses. I occasionally cut a few trees to sell, and have opened up my land to Frisbee golf. Now, people come from all over the country to play our course.
About five years ago logging companies approached me and my neighbours asking us to sell our trees. They said that the old hardwood in our woods were ‘ready’ and we could earn good money. I declined but my neighbours agreed. Now, all the woods surrounding my land have been cut. My 30 acres is now a small island of old forest, surrounded by open space, young trees, brush and thickets. Both my neighbours came to me after their land was logged and said it wasn’t worth the money – they wished they had their trees back.
The logging pressure is really intense. In the last ten years or so, logging has increased tremendously. Whereas they used to do selective cuts, now they just go in and mow it all down. They log a lot more than they used to – especially in the wetlands. There are places on the Roanoke River that are bare right down to the bank. They lay logs down in the creek beds so they can drive the equipment in there.
I don’t know for sure where the wood goes, [but] I have seen logging companies clearing the hardwood stands across from my property where they cut, strip, and chip the trees on site. If the trees are being chipped, you know they’re not going to be made into lumber.
After the surrounding trees were cut on my neighbors’ land, several things happened to me and my property. First, my own forest land was now exposed, rather than being in the middle of a much larger wooded area. In these old hardwood forests, big trees support other big trees. But now my forest is less protected, and when our area was hit by a hurricane in 2013, we lost 56 oaks that were all more than 100 years old. Almost all the trees we lost were on the edge of the forest, because they were no longer protected by the other big trees that had extended all around. Our disc golf course was in pretty bad shape – we had so many trees down, we had to bring in a lot of help to clear them up. In fact, we’re still cleaning up that damage.
The land that’s been cut around us hasn’t been replanted, but is being allowed to grow back naturally. Because it is more open it’s grown up with brush and thicket and pines. This habitat is dense and tangled, and no longer supports the small game that traditionally has been hunted here. I have lived here my whole life and grew up walking in the woods and hunting small game.
Increased logging has had a significant impact on my community and environment, as well as on me personally. This is especially true with logging in wetland and bottomland areas. Our region is on the coastal plain of North Carolina, very close to the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, and crossed all over by rivers and waterways. The general elevation of land on my property is just 30-35 feet. Bottomland and riverside logging reduces the natural barriers to erosion, increasing silt in the rivers and flooding.
Clearcutting these bottomland forests also has probably made our overall problem with flooding in major storms even worse. A lot of it is climate change, but we’ve had 15 or so 100-year floods in the last ten years. The wetlands are flooding a lot more in the spring.
I understand that the Renewable Energy Directive will allow governments in the EU to continue to build energy plants that will depend on imported wood, especially pellets.
I have already experienced the loss of my woods from logging nearby, as well as damage to road and the deterioration of wooded areas near rivers.
In this region we know that the pellets being produced are filling the demand for biomass fuel in the EU. Anything that happens in Europe that increases the demand for pellets is going to directly affect my town and my circumstances.
It does not make sense that cutting forests can have no impact on climate change. We have to count the carbon that is put in the air when we burn anything. Calling those pellets zero carbon emissions doesn’t make sense. I’d would think a grade school student could understand it – it’s common sense.”