SEWANEE, Tenn. -- Standing by a tear-shaped pond nestled in the Tennessee woods, biology professor Jonathan Evans cupped a pregnant marbled salamander in his hands. The black-and-gray-spotted creature had trekked through the forest to lay her eggs by a pool of water that comes and goes with the seasons, he said, but the pond could disappear for good if loggers harvest the hardwood trees around it.
"This is a species that will go locally extinct due to forest conversion, without a doubt," Evans said. He added that salamanders "need both these forests and these pools. It doesn't look like much to a forester who's not trained ecologically. This is just in the way."
Evans, of the University of the South in Sewanee, is on the front lines of a war between timber interests and environmentalists over whether the state's booming timber industry is threatening one of the world's most diverse ecosystems, the Cumberland Plateau.
In a region where there is little regulatory oversight and nearly 80 percent of land is privately held, activists are concerned that conversion of the native hardwood forest to fast-growing pine is damaging crucial habitat for hundreds of plants and animals. Some foresters are clear-cutting swaths of oak, hickory and other trees and replacing them with pine plantations, a more lucrative but less ecologically valuable kind of forest.
But unlike the forestry feuds of the 1990s, when environmental advocates used litigation and regulation to protect the northern spotted owl and other species, this campaign is largely being waged with PowerPoint presentations in corporate boardrooms.
Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a leading crusader in what he calls a "local battle of global significance" -- spends most of his time pushing timber firms and their customers to protect the plateau and the surrounding Southern Appalachian Blue Ridge Mountains, a stretch of forest that extends from West Virginia and Kentucky through Tennessee to Alabama.
In what they call "market-based environmentalism," activists are pushing office supply stores, computer firms and even football teams to scrutinize how they buy paper products, much of which comes from the Southeast. And they are finding ready listeners in such corporate customers as the National Football League's Philadelphia Eagles and the Warner Music Group, both of which are taking a hard look at logging practices on the Cumberland Plateau.
Tim Sexton, a Los Angeles-based consultant who is working with Hershkowitz and "helps companies do well by doing good," said the Eagles and Warner Bros. are researching how their paper products are made.
"They are very interested in making sure the products in their supply chain come from environmentally friendly sources," Sexton said. "It's a way for our clients to be good citizens, to distinguish themselves as citizen brands."
Such environmental groups as the Asheville, N.C.-based Dogwood Alliance have scored some major victories: Within the past two years the Staples and Office Depot chains agreed to increase the average percentage of post-consumer recycled content in their paper products to 30 percent after being targeted by activists.
Dogwood Alliance spokesman Scot Quaranda said these tactics are essential in trying to save "one of the most special places on the planet that nobody cares about."
It may be too early to assess how much this strategy, modeled on campaigns such as the one that targeted Nike for its use of child labor overseas, is influencing forestry practices. But some firms are taking pains to demonstrate their environmental commitment. Greenville, S.C.-based Bowater Inc., the largest landowner on the Cumberland Plateau, has its logging independently monitored as part of a "Sustainable Forestry Initiative," although critics say these standards are too weak.
"We deal with science, we deal with facts, and it shows we have a sustainable resource in our operating areas, and we're doing our part to contribute to that," said Barry Graden, forestry development manager for Bowater's southeast woodlands operations. "There is a discrepancy between perceptions and reality."
But Evans, who has led a four-year study -- both federally and privately funded -- of logging on the southern Cumberland Plateau, said he and other scientists have identified "an alarming trend of forest loss that, if it continues, will lead to a fundamental change in the ecology of this region in Tennessee. . . . It's a showdown here of what's the future of the Southeast."