Economy and Land Use

Paper and allied products provided 14,000 jobs in waterside Alabama counties in 1992. (Tombigbee Country)

Mobile has become one of the nation’s busiest wood chip ports.

Forestry companies own or lease a quarter of the 22 million acres of forestland in the state. Most of that land is planted in rows of fast-growing pine, trees that can be harvested in as little as 14 years.

The town of McIntosh is well known for the largest salt deposit in the state.

Alabama’s first oil well began operating in Choctaw County in 1944. (Rivers of AL)

RIVER COMMERCE
Canal Chip Corp. in Sumter County, Ala., loads barges with wood chips bound for Kimberly-Clark’s mill near Mobile. Wood products account for almost a third of the traffic on the Tenn-Tom Waterway.

Although trade along the waterway has grown every year since its opening in 1985, expectations for economic benefit of the project have fallen far short. In 1997 (the last year for which there are complete statistics) the Tenn-Tom transported 9.1 million tons of goods. However, the waterway was promoted as moving almost three times as much tonnage.

At $1.99 billion, it became the costliest public works project ever undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps excavated more soil than was dug to build the Panama Canal, setting off a series of environmental impacts that are still felt today.

President Richard Nixon came to Mobile for a groundbreaking ceremony of construction in May 1971. In 1985, the waterway transported only 1.3 million tons of products during its first year. expected the Tenn-Tom to move 28 million tons of coal during its first year of operation. Experts estimate half of the coal that flows down the waterway, and most of the wood chips and other wood products, go to foreign markets.

Led by Japan, Asian nations are the top customers for Alabama’s wood and paper products. In 1996, Japan alone bought $276 million worth of pulp, paper and other forest products from Alabama, according to statistics compiled by the Alabama Foreign Trade Relations Commission. That same year, 3.6 million tons of wood chips and other wood products moved through the Tenn-Tom.

Promoters of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway promised the new shipping lane would generate a boom in coal exports. Instead, it has set off an explosion in tree consumption, fueled by dozens of chip mills that are sprouting up all along the waterway’s banks.

Bulk transportation is six times cheaper than truck and twice as cheap as rail. (Tombigbee Country)