47 minutes, 1996, Hi8

“Video Review: SOUTHBOUND”
Ozark Sierran, Spring 1996
by Caroline Pufalt

Southbound is a stunning video that juxtaposes vistas of rolling, forested hills with scenes of decimated landscapes. Produced by Doug Hawes-Davis, a Missouri native, the video speaks to a growing problem in forestry in the South and southern Midwest.

Unfortunately, this video is of interest to Missourians because its subject is the effect of chip mills on forests and communities. These moving disasters are also encroaching on Missouri’s forests.

Chip mills are often mobile operations. Although they appear large, their infrastructure is frequently designed to be moved after an area is cut over. They process timber usually for pulp or other “lower-grade” uses. Chip mills typically provide few jobs and move out of an area within a few years, leaving behind badly cut-over hillsides that will not produce timber of good quality for generations.

Trees for chip mills are usually clear-cut through a process called whole-tree logging. Machinery harvests the entire tree, and virtually all of it is used for pulp. Chip mills can process trees of any size, so nothing is spared. Land that has been whole-tree harvested is devastated.

Because chip mills cut indiscriminately, they can often use forests that were otherwise considered “low-grade.” These so-called low-grade forests might provide many other amenities, such as wildlife habitat, watershed protection and opportunities for recreation. Their lower-quality timber has, until now, protected them. Southbound illustrates how chip mills work and the devastation they leave with impressive footage of Alabama logging.

The video’s style will be familiar to anyone who has seen other work by Doug Hawes-Davis. Hawes-Davis lets the characters speak for themselves. By piecing together many interviews, he lets local residents and officials tell what chip mills mean to a forest and a community.

The title, Southbound, refers to the acknowledged strategy of timber companies to leave the over-cut Pacific Northwest and move south for their source of timber. Our nation started logging in the east and we have, in effect, cut our way west to the sea. One timberman in the video likens this cut across the continent to cutting the grass on a very big lawn. By the time you’ve finished cutting the back yard, he says, the front needs cutting again.

But some local residents interviewed in Southbound do not like the idea of their area’s forests being cut like grass. They see the damage left behind by chip mills elsewhere in Alabama and speak out forcefully for protecting their land from such abuse. The video includes some moving statements from landowners and mill owners who say they will have no part of using their land or equipment to make a fast buck.

However, chip mills have their defenders, and Southbound gives them their say. A state forester claims that cut-over lands will recover and produce a new forest of high quality, so people simply need to get used to seeing clear-cuts. Other defenders claim market forces are the best mechanism for forest management.

But market forces have led to another problem. Many private lands in Alabama, once covered by hardwood forests, have been converted to pine plantations. Fast-growing pines provide a more readily available pulp source. Southbound provides dramatic footage of just what a pine plantation is (i.e. - a tree crop planted in rows, a true biological desert). It is said a pine plantation resembles a forest the way a cornfield resembles a native tall-grass prairie. Southbound brings the analogy to life.

Southbound provides a close look at one of the most troubling issues in forestry today. It puts a human face on the distress chip mills cause a community. And it provides a thorough look at the land itself.

Some readers may have seen Doug Hawes-Davis’ earlier documentary, THE ELEMENT OF DOOM, about the lead industry in Missouri. If so, they will realize that his work is well worth seeing.