“Green Rolling Hills”
by David Havlick, Author, No Place Distant
A chainsaw grinds away at a three-foot trunk of a hardwood, its blade thrust fully to the butt of the saw. In moments, the tree groans, splinters apart, and crashes to earth. The sawyer turns away quickly, in a movement made of habit, lights a cigarette, then steps up, elbow on knee, to gaze down at the severed maple. The tree fallen, the sawyer sated, another cigarette counts coupe. So begins GREEN ROLLING HILLS, the latest documentary from Doug Hawes-Davis.
Green Rolling Hills relies upon images on screen, rather than overdubbed narrative, to represent the debate surrounding the future of the central Appalachian forests in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. In place of superimposed narrative, Hawes-Davis has pieced together dozens of interviews with a host of characters, from US Department of Agriculture Assistant Secretary Jim Lyons to a local sawmill owner to wood products officials, environmental activists, and residents of Apple Grove, West Virginia. The narrative created by these assorted voices moves quickly, relentlessly almost, to depict a town set in a region that desperately wants jobs, yet fails to recognize that adding heavy industry may do more to degrade the quality of landscape and life—for any number of species including humans—than it would to improve the present conditions.
Although the film has a specific focus—the plans of multi-national corporation Parsons & Whittemore to build North America’s largest pulp mill on the banks of the Ohio River near Apple Grove—in truth the subject matter extends far beyond the details of this project. Consider some Pulp Facts: worldwide, the pulp and paper industry churns out tens of thousands of tons of chlorinated waste product each day, pours millions of gallons of effluent into waterways every week, consumes four billion trees each year, and grosses annual profits in excess of one hundred billion dollars. Unlike sawmills that demand primarily larger logs for use in construction, pulp mills can process trees that range in size from large old growth oak, maple and pine down to saplings and brush. In the quest for raw materials to feed the pulpmill’s appetite, forests are essentially cut to the soil, leaving nothing behind for regeneration, erosion control, wildlife habitat, or soil restoration.
Apple Grove, along with nearby communities along the Ohio River, finds itself perched on the brink of the abysmal cycle of boom and bust economics. If Parsons & Whittemore builds its multi-billion dollar pulp mill, the next decade or two will witness a frenzy of cutting in the surrounding forests. In West Virginia, State Forester Bill Maxey looks forward to industrial growth, “We’re now over a 2.1 billion dollar industry with room to double that, maybe more.” What Maxey fails to mention, at least on camera, is just how things will look after the industry sweeps through at a 4 billion dollar per year clip. A semblance of that question lies at the crux of this documentary: Will we, as a society, continue to rely upon short-term growth-based economic fixes, or will we pursue living on this planet in a sustainable manner?
If the actions of the Clinton Administration provide any clues, then we may already be plugged into the economic fixes. In April, EPA Administrator Carol Browner overruled, then removed Regional Environmental Protection Agency Director Peter Kostmayer after he pressured Parsons & Whittemore to include antipollution devices in the mill’s plans. When Kostmayer came under attack, the voice of Vice President Al Gore-Kostmayer’s former colleague in the Senate-remained noticeably silent. Browner reportedly told Kostmayer that his environmental concern was “not a good fit” politically.
The visuals of Green Rolling Hills offer compelling testimony that cut-and-run forestry practices have not been a good fit, ecologically, throughout Appalachia. While The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Associated Press have recently featured the sugary scenarios of widespread environmental success painted by Gregg Easterbrook and others, the truth remains largely ignored or glossed. The Eastern hardwood forests have, indeed, regenerated to a point where large tracts of cut land now bear significant cover. What Easterbrook and his cronies fail to note is that the composition of the vegetation and wildlife, where it was ever documented in a pristine condition, has been radically altered. The original dominant tree species of the Appalachian uplands-American Chestnut-no longer exists beyond a few rust-blighted saplings that manage to sprout from the stumped relics of their forebears. Appalachian soil, post-logging, retains only a fraction of its original organic matter and nutrients. Introduced generalist species such as the European starling and house sparrow now occupy ecological niches formerly filled by the woodthrush and other native songbirds that depend upon large blocks of undisturbed forest. Even as trees grow back, the forest ecosystems do not. With every successive phase of logging and road building, the land suffers from a cumulative depletion of organic matter. In short, the biodiversity of the forests has been shattered by Appalachia’s industrial past and will suffer further from any renewed logging, road-building, and refining that would come with the development of the mill at Apple Grove.
Time and again communities throughout the world have been subjected to the painful lesson that corporate industrial growth does not equate to an increased local standard of living. Once pulp mills, processing plants, refineries, and other heavy industry move into a locale, property values consistently drop, traditional community-based activities diminish, municipal infrastructure demands increase, and long-term health problems rise. Dioxins and chlorinated hydrocarbons are two of the most common byproducts found in bleached pulp mill effluent, and are also among the most deadly chemicals known to humanity. The United States currently generates more than thirty pounds of dioxin each year, a seemingly unimpressive total unless you consider that dioxin toxicity is measured in parts per trillion, even by EPA standards. The evacuations of Love Canal, New York, and Times Beach, Missouri, bear witness to the cost in lives lost, degraded, and shortened, as well as dollars spent and property condemned, that dioxins wield. And yet, the EPA continues to give way to political pressure. The agency withdrew its objections to Parsons & Whittemore’s water pollution permit in February, after WV Governor Gaston Caperton met with Administrator Browner to discuss EPA plans to require testing dioxin levels in the Ohio River. Although in Green Rolling Hills the voice comes from an Apple Grove high-schooler anxious for work, perhaps we might as well be listening to an EPA official assess the impact of a new mill, “You already can’t fish anyways down there at the river ‘cause you got Shell and Axol up there and they put chemicals into the water so one more ain’t gonna hurt it.” A 1993 US Fish and Wildlife Service study indicates that dioxin levels in Ohio River catfish, indeed, make them unfit for consumption.
A pair of gruesomely ironic sequences linger long after the haunting chords of Ned Mudd and the Swampdogs fade from GREEN ROLLING HILLS’ final frames. The first features a wizened Apple Grove senior, looking to the future, still intent on some small slice of the American Dream. After voicing his primary concern, that the mill would bring in badly needed jobs to his town, the man turns to what surely must be common ground with his interviewer, “And we’ll have a better environment for the wildlife and everything.” The camera cuts from his plaintively hopeful look to pan across a barren hillside, gouged and oozing wounds from recent logging. Later, almost predictably, WV Forester Bill Maxey glibly explains that, “We can expand the industry by almost double of what we have and still maintain the forest in the condition you see it today.” As the camera again explores a gaping, denuded landscape, we can’t help but fear that Maxey speaks the truth.