Video Librarian, 1996
“It’s almost like cuttin’ your grass, if you got a really big lawn,” says Ernie Stebbins, Executive Director of the National Hardwood Lumber Association. The “grass” he is talking about are trees. The mowers are “chip mills” which convert any kind of wood into cheap fiber for export, and the lawn he’s talking about is, more or less, the continental United States. Stebbins is just one of a number of loggers, environmentalists, nature lovers, ordinary citizens, lawyers, politicians and others who testify before the camera in Doug Hawes-Davis’ riveting documentary Southbound. Unbeknownst to most of us, the timber industry is in the process of quietly moving away from the overlogged and environmentally aware Pacific Northwest into the poverty-stricken and resource challenged Deep South. Here, far from inciting massive protests about spotted owls and snail darters, fly-by-night chip mills are welcomed with open arms by state governments and private landowners starved for quick easy cash. This has lead to rapacious clear-cutting throughout parts of Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. Poverty and an abundance of natural resources are usually not a recipe for environmental responsibility and, as Hawes-Davis’ film demonstrates, there is no lack of people lining up to make a quick buck off the “product,” a logging industry term for the trees growing in your back yard. Nature lovers and civic leaders testify to the loss of biological diversity when forests are converted to monotonous stands of softwood pines, and biologists explain why the state of Alabama is now ranked third in the nation in its number of endangered species. But the most powerful image comes in a simple shot. We see a sign welcoming visitors to Mobile, Alabama, “Tree City USA.” Dwarfing the sign, like a cartoon image, is a pile of sawdust the size of Mt. Rushmore. It is no illusion. It is, of course, the work of a huge chip mill eating trees and spitting out dust 24 hours a day just outside the city limits. Highly recommended.