MILL SPRING, Mo. -- Ron McFaddan's fondest memories of growing up in this remote Ozarks village come from a childhood spent outdoors, running through thick forests and diving in crystal-clear streams.
''Back then, you could keep your eyes open underwater and actually see what you were diving for,'' he recalls.
But McFaddan, 59, has watched his outdoor playground deteriorate in the last few years. Clear-cutting of the forest around Mill Spring has left the streams fouled and the landscaped scarred, he says.
''I hate to see the forest change before my grandchildren can run and play in it, but I'm afraid that's where we are headed. What it comes down to is a lack of respect for the forest.''
Clear-cutting in the Ozarks is nothing new. Peak harvests occurred in the late 1800s when shortleaf pine and later hardwoods fed the westward expansion.
But McFaddan and others say they have seen massive clear-cuts in southern Missouri return with vigor in the last few years because of a new industry -- the chip mill.
Chip mills mechanically reduce trees and tree parts into tiny wood chips, which are then sent elsewhere to be turned into pulp for paper. Because of restrictions on harvesting in the Northwest, two high-capacity chip mills moved into Missouri in the mid-1990s -- Willamette Industries near Mill Spring and Canal Wood Corp. in Scott City.
The two combined are capable of producing almost 600,000 tons of wood chips each year -- equal to harvesting some 30 acres of forest a day, environmentalists say.
Supporters see the mills as an opportunity to market lower-quality trees, the rough and rotten material that saw mills generally won't use. They say the chip mills ultimately provide space in the forest for growing high-quality trees in the future.
Others argue that because chip mills chew up wood at a much faster rate than traditional sawmills, they encourage irresponsible harvesting for quick financial gain. In the end, they say, the mills wreck wildlife habitat and undermine long-term plans to manage forests.
''Chip mills are one of the biggest threats to Missouri's forests,'' said Devin Scherubel, a network coordinator with Missouri Heartwood, an environmental group. ''Small trees, the ones that should be left in the forest for another 10 or 15 years to become saw logs for things like furniture or musical instruments, are suddenly being cut to supply chip mills for a quick buck.''
Steven Galiher, a forester for Willamette Industries, said a few outspoken environmentalists have wrongly fingered the mills as the perpetrators.
''Clear-cutting is nothing new to this state. What makes a difference is what happens after it's cut,'' said Galiher, who manages 26,000 acres of timberland in Missouri owned by Willamette. ''We are providing a market for a source of wood that nobody had been using... .''
Most of the timber for chips comes from within 60 miles of the mill, Galiher said, with economic benefits reaching private landowners and local logging crews. ''This is of benefit to the entire community,'' he said.
Residents of this poverty-stricken community about 25 miles northwest of Poplar Bluff aren't so sure. Operating for three years, the mill employs just six people.
Public criticism of the mills prompted Gov. Mel Carnahan to create an advisory committee in 1998 to study the environmental, economic and social impacts of the new industry in Missouri.
Other states face similar issues. In North Carolina, a study found that hardwoods were cut at a greater rate for pulpwood products as more chip mills opened. But the study did not confirm or rebut claims by environmentalists that chip mills are deforestation machines.
Missouri took its most recent forest inventory in 1989. Since the high-capacity chip mills opened later, evidence of their impact is hard to find.
However, an internal report by the state's Department of Conservation found evidence that any increase in clear-cutting will increase run-off, shift sediment, leach nutrients and raise the temperature of streams a few years after a harvest. Also, the report warned, the balance of forests could change from a mix of mature and young trees to primarily immature trees.
No state regulations currently govern logging or clear-cutting of timber on private land, which accounts for more than 85 percent of all Missouri's forests. So the task of managing the land falls to private landowners.
''There is a right way to harvest timber and a wrong way,'' said Emily Firebaugh, a member of the governor's committee who owns forest land of her own. ''The point is: Most people don't realize the difference.''
Proper harvesting, she said, includes ''best management practices,'' or BMPs, that minimize damage by leaving buffers of standing timber around streams, among other things.
Shying away from regulations that may infringe on private property rights, committee members instead are considering incentives to encourage use of best-management practices.
One plan may require chip mills to purchase timber harvested by licensed loggers who certify BMPs. Another may offer tax breaks to landowners who voluntarily practice BMPs.
Meanwhile, unable to regulate harvesting methods directly, the state has turned to other tactics.
Last spring, the Department of Natural Resources issued Willamette Industries a storm-water runoff permit with two stipulations: Report where it harvests timber and train its loggers with the state.
Willamette sued, saying the state could not regulate remote timber harvests with a permit meant for the mill itself. A county judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the matter should be resolved outside of court. Willamette is appealing the dismissal.
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