You can't see the forest when there are no trees
Attention, tree huggers, tree cutters and all who appreciate the intrinsic values of South Carolina pines: A foreign-based lumber company has a green light to build the biggest sawmill and lumber plant on the continent just south of Orangeburg. That's “green,” as in go — not “green,” as in natural, healthy, energy efficient or wise.
The mega-mill at Rowesville on the North Edisto River would be the largest pine-tree processor in North America and add 300 “new” jobs in Orangeburg County, promoters say. What's not advertised is this not-so-jolly green giant would require 400 log trucks a day delivering fresh-cut pines 365 days a year to supply the 700 million board feet of wood the mill could produce. Imagine that!
Now imagine all the 18-wheelers it would take to haul the finished lumber down busy Interstate 26 to Charleston to be loaded on ships to China, India and elsewhere. Hopefully, considering the traffic, they'd use the train.
Austrian blitzkrieg?: The Klausner Group — which has offices in Austria, China, India, Lebanon and Myrtle Beach — is being courted by S.C. Department of Commerce, and Orangeburg County officials are all fired up that the whopper mill would be built on 284 acres near a stretch of U.S. 21 known as the “Lowcountry Highway.”
Interestingly, Klausner has permits for construction of two more colossal sawmills in Enfield, N.C., and Suwannee County, in north Florida. That would give it the three biggest mills in North America, presumably. In other words all is not wafting long-leafs and aromatic pinesap blowing in gentle winds across the land. It sounds more like rumblings of a Klausner blitzkrieg of the Southeastern pine belt.
Two-thirds of South Carolina is covered in trees, most of them loblolly, long-leaf, slash and other yellow pines. Yet only a few S.C. foresters, sawyers and conservation-minded landowners seem worried that Lowcountry natural resources and small, homegrown sawmills would be big losers when massive clear-cutting begins to feed the Rowesville buzz blades, planers, paint/lacquer vats and kiln boilers.
The state's timber industry generates $17 billion in revenue annually, more than any other agricultural or manufacturing entity. But that would change if the Rowesville mega-sawmill runs at full capacity. The very best of forestry management practices cannot sustain the number of trees within a 75-mile radius needed to feed the mega-mill along with the seven or so existing sawmills in the area.
The Rowesville story has gotten little coverage in South Carolina's largest daily newspapers. But The Post and Courier did run a story in October about Klausner's application for a state air-quality permit, which subsequently zipped along serendipitously until late January when the state Department of Health and Environmental Control approved the certificate. That means the coast is, well, clear or soon could be.
Of mice and moose: Here are some questions asked during public hearings on the proposed mill, followed by the state's answers:
■ Increased local truck traffic? Orangeburg County will build new access roads to the plant, presumably with state money.
■ Increased air pollution? That's a federal problem.
■ Increased noise? There are no applicable noise ordinances.
■ Massive clear-cutting? Studies show that clear-cutting pines enhances the quantity and quality of food for deer, black bears, songbirds, hares, rabbits, mice and moose.
Meanwhile, the S.C. Wildlife Federation and Coastal Conservation League fear for the ecological health of animals and the forests that could be decimated by the mega-mill. Yet most members of the South Carolina forestry community sat on their hands during the permitting process. They should have recognized that the Rowesville mill could compete for a timber base too small to be sustained.
Official secrets: Only a select few people know exactly how much in tax exemptions, tax credits, tax caps, tax refunds; road, water and other infrastructure guarantees have been offered to entice Klausner to build at Rowesville. That's because most politicians and the bureaucrats involved say such “contractual agreements” are official secrets.
The Klausner courtship is driven by the S.C. Department of Commerce and others, ostensibly to create more jobs. The State Ports Authority supports the mill because Klausner promises to export 100 percent of the plant's products through Charleston via Shanghai, New Delhi and Beirut — where each city has a Klausner international sales office.
Until recently, the Klausner Group ran five gigantic sawmills in East Germany. But trees became so scarce, other German saw-millers complained so loudly and Klausner was hit so hard financially that only two remain over there.
Which, of course, makes one wonder: Why would state and local leaders approve spending taxpayers' money to subsidize such a foreign corporation to the detriment of existing S.C. businesses that pay their taxes, employ hundreds of local workers and faithfully serve their communities?
Here's another question: What happens to the little guy?
Answer: Ask anyone who ran a hardware store prior to a big chain coming to town.John M. Burbage has been a newspaper reporter, columnist, editor and publisher in the Carolinas for 44 years. He lives in Charleston and owns a farm in Hampton County.