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Extension service: Is paper a threat to our national forests?

I like paper. I read from books. Coupons to my favorite restaurant come in a free booklet. When I get writer’s block, switching from the computer screen to a spiral-bound notebook unlocks my creativity.

Paper has a great deal of utility, too. Newspapers do double-duty at my house, first in providing information, then in lining nesting boxes or helping to start a winter evening fire. Notes written on index cards and taped where I see them help keep me on track. Shredded junk mail and old documents serve as bedding for my worm bin or carbon for the compost bin, where they take another turn in the cycle of life.

We all rely upon paper in other ways each day. Living with two daughters and me, my husband used to joke that he should have invested in Georgia Pacific and Kimberly Clark.

Obviously, I’m not a fan of the “go paperless” movement. But when I recently heard someone describe U.S. paper use in terms of how many California redwood trees would have to die to make that much paper, I just had to shake my head at the misinformation.

Pines grown for pulp are a crop like corn. The difference is that corn matures and can be harvested in a matter of weeks, whereas pines require around 26 years of growth between planting and harvest. In those years, managed timber stands provide habitat for wildlife, absorb carbon dioxide and various pollutants from the air, moderate temperature and improve water quality.

Although it represents only 5 percent of the state’s total annual farm gate value, Georgia leads the nation in timber harvest. More than 60 percent of direct output of forestry products in Georgia comes from the pulp and paper sector. In addition to paper, this renewable resource (which is also recyclable and biodegradable) is converted into 212 types of Georgia grown products, including poles, barrels, furniture and cabinets, log homes, lumber for construction and biomass pellets for energy production. Between growing seedlings, manufacturing equipment for transplanting and harvesting, trucking cut timber to one of Georgia’s 190 mills, and processing it into added-value consumer products, the Georgia timber industry creates 144,537 jobs and contributes more than $35 billion to the state’s economy.

Georgia’s timber industry has expanded in each of the past five years. Yet, with net tree growth volume exceeding tree harvest by 40 percent for softwoods and 80 percent for hardwoods, Georgia now has more trees in its 24.8 million acres of woodland than it did in the 1950s. Private owners hold more than half (54 percent) of that woodland, corporations own 34 percent, and local, state and federal governments own 10.5 percent. 

Fire, disease, urbanization and invasive species are greater threats to forest lands than timber harvest is. Ranked as the worst non-native invasive plant in the Georgia Forestry Commission’s “Dirty Dozen” list for nearly a decade, Chinese privet had overtaken more than 1,115,000 acres of Georgia forest land by 2015. That’s almost double the foothold it had in 2013. 

An evergreen shrub, privet thrives in sun or shade, spreads by roots and seeds, chokes out everything in its path, and creates a monoculture thicket. It’s blooming now along roadsides and in parks and landscapes. Many people find it attractive, so they let it grow and prosper at the expense of other, valuable plants. Two other invasive plants, Japanese honeysuckle and mimosa trees, enjoy similar tolerance.

As I see it, the best way to protect our forests is to embrace paper products and take action where we can against invasive plants on both public and private lands.

Heather N. Kolich is the Agriculture & Natural Resources Agent for the UGA Extension Forsyth County.