In Alabama, Is Bamboo Invasive Or An Inventive New Crop?

Bamboo is now being used to make everything from bicycles to bathroom tissue. Now there's a movement afoot to begin growing the crop on a wide-scale basis in Alabama.

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It's hardy, it's durable, and it's a superstar building material in the green movement, a renewable resource used in everything from bicycles to bathroom tissue. We're talking about bamboo. To meet growing demand, one group plans to make it a cash crop in Alabama. But as Gigi Douban reports from Birmingham, some foresters and area farmers are not wild about the idea.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: Patrick Kelly cuts down bamboo all the time. No guilt. Because in his little corner of Alabama, it seems like it's everywhere.

PATRICK KELLY: There's tons of it. Yeah. We're not too concerned about running out.

DOUBAN: Kelly manages HERObike, a company in Greensboro that makes bicycles out of bamboo. He grabs his Japanese pull saw, and we take a quick walk around the block to the back of someone's property.

KELLY: We're going to have to get in the woods a little bit.

DOUBAN: That's OK.

KELLY: Get dirty. You all right?

DOUBAN: That's all right.

KELLY: OK. This is one of the places that we use simply out of necessity. It's here, it's easy to get to. We can go in over here.

DOUBAN: He sees a nice, tall bamboo stalk and starts sawing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAWING)

KELLY: All right. Timber.

DOUBAN: Back at the shop, Kelly tells me why it makes sense to build bikes out of bamboo.

KELLY: You can take resources, and with a little bit of ingenuity and hard work, you can build something. And you can do something with it that's transferable and hopefully helpful to society.

DOUBAN: This is the kind of feel-good attitude behind the recent push for not just bikes but all sorts of bamboo products. There's just one problem: Bamboo isn't grown in the U.S. on a large scale. So companies here that use lots of it have to import it, usually from Asia. But some manufacturers want more. A few months ago, paper products giant Kimberly-Clark announced it would partner with a biotechnology company called Booshoot to produce millions of bamboo plants a year. Similar efforts are under way in Washington state, but Alabama is set to be the launch pad.

MARSHA FOLSOM: We anticipate Alabama being the epicenter of the bamboo industry. And in 25 and 30 years from now, it'll be very commonplace.

DOUBAN: That's Marsha Folsom, wife of former Governor Jim Folsom. She and a group of investors in 2013 plan to build what she calls a bamboo innovation and industrial center. But first, how do you mass produce a plant that can take up to 120 years to reproduce? Folsom says her group has found a way. Growing it in a lab through tissue culture.

FOLSOM: And then they will go into the field and be planted, just like a pine tree is planted.

DOUBAN: But bamboo isn't the same as pine. The fact that it comes back year after year is great, until you don't want it to come back anymore. Rick Oates is with the Alabama Farmers Federation.

RICK OATES: My concern - and I would think I would be speaking for any landowner - is that, you know, you don't want to plant something on your land that you can't control the growth of.

DOUBAN: Talk to just about any forester or plant expert about bamboo, and you'll hear the same word come up over and over: invasive. In fact, lots of experts compare bamboo to kudzu, the vine that gobbled up the South. Stephen Enloe is one of them. He's an invasive plant specialist at Auburn University. He says plenty of crops made their way to the U.S. and have been really beneficial, like soybeans and potatoes. But others, despite good intentions, ended up doing more harm than good, he says.

STEPHEN ENLOE: We do know that bamboo, once it is established, often does tend to form very dense stands. So you get very dense bamboo thickets with nothing else growing in them.

DOUBAN: Enloe says he's not opposed to bringing new bioenergy crops to the U.S., but bamboo needs to be studied more. For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham.

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