Is there a future for cypress?
Down a half-mile gravel footpath, deep within the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Francisville, stands a majestic 1,500-year-old bald- cypress tree.
“Old Cat,” as the tree is affectionately called, stands more than 80 feet high and boasts a 53-foot circumference. In the midst of its Spanish-moss-draped branches rest the empty nests of recently fledged neotropical migratory birds. During flooding, when the tree is only accessible by boat, nimble raccoons can be seen fishing from its immense trunk.
This mammoth tree’s size and partially hollow trunk helped spare it from a logger’s ax a century ago, a fate that befell most of Louisiana’s legendary baldcypress. It now stands as a testament to the power of Mother Nature and a reminder of what once was.
It was baldcypress, commonly referred to as cypress, that created the paradigm for modern business in Louisiana today, and it is cypress that holds the key to Louisiana’s future.
Dr. Carl Brasseaux, professor of history and director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, asserted, “Louisiana has been an economic colony of the United States since the Civil War. Generation after generation, we have seen companies move in from elsewhere in the nation to exploit resources here, destroy the environment and move on. The cypress industry has created this paradigm.”
In the late 1800s, lumber companies owned predominantly by Northerners feverishly descended upon southern Louisiana. They set up mills using cheap labor to cull what appeared to be an unlimited resource.
At the end of the Great Depression, nearly all harvestable cypress trees had been cut, and the cypress mills closed. Louisianians went back to fishing and farming cotton and sugar cane. Then came the oil boom. For many years, people made their living taking dirty, high-paying jobs in the oil industry. Others remained as productive fishermen. When the oil industry fell flat in the ’80s, Louisianians still had the fish. Now the fishing industry, too, has been exploited and is in decline.
While many stories have been written about the cypress harvest, it is perhaps Greg Guirard’s novel, The Land of Dead Giants, that captures the epic story most poignantly. An accomplished nature photographer and author, Guirard wrote the semi-autobiographical story about a boy who discovers that his grandfather helped to log the Atchafalaya Basin.
In the book, Guirard mentions a mythical cypress tree more than 2,000 years old that escaped the logger’s ax. “People call me asking where that tree is. It saddens me that I have to tell them that it doesn’t exist, that it was only fiction,” he said.
Dallas Melançon, Carl Carline and Ozaire Bonin, Atchafalaya Basin fishermen now in their late 60s and early 70s, can remember their fathers regaling them with similar stories.
“My father only made 25 cents an hour cutting trees down in the basin,” Melancon recounted. “The trees were so big that a man could fit lying down inside the trunk,” he added. Photographs verify such tales.
Those trees are gone now, their stumps the faded fingerprints of their grandeur. The mills that once harvested them have also fallen into disrepair, with rusted roofs tumbling down on equipment long ago abandoned.
Nearly 100 years later, Louisiana is primed to start the cycle again. Cypress trees are ready for harvest, although admittedly, their age precludes them from reaching their prior stature.
Timber is at a premium today, and trees, including cypress, are viewed by the Louisiana Department of Forestry as a harvestable, renewable crop. Will cypress trees regenerate for a harvest in the next century? Will Louisiana manage its resources more wisely?
Water – the lifeblood and the poison
Louisiana is facing a crisis. The state’s coast is eroding. In the 20th century, 1,200 square miles of Louisiana’s coast quietly slipped into the sea. With it disappeared rich coastal habitats. Yearly, the state averages a loss of nearly 22,000 acres, a football field every 30 minutes.
While debates concerning sustainable timber-management and mulch operations continue, it is water that should be getting the attention. Water is the most menacing and most underestimated enemy of Louisiana’s cypress and its coastal forests.
Hydrological issues affect nearly all of Louisiana’s lakes, streams and coastline. Saltwater intrusion, prevalent in many areas along the coast, has killed the natural habitat and converted it to open water. An overabundance of freshwater trapped over land, stagnating, has affected some regions of the state, while other areas have been plagued by nutrient-poor water. Some areas have completely dried up because of water-diversion projects.
A prolific levee system is to blame. After the legendary 1927 flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aggressively leveed and dredged the Mississippi River, permanently altering the country’s landscape from north to south, from Illinois to Louisiana. Those greatly criticized Corps projects enabled millions to live, farm and create industry on a flood plain.
Oil and gas companies also bear a large portion of the burden. Companies own tens of thousands of miles of pipelines that crisscross Louisiana’s swamps and marshes on their way to offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Many of the pipelines cut east and west through bayous, impeding flow and trapping silt as the rivers flow north to south. Other pipelines, built in small bayous, caused an influx of salt water, increased wave action and subsequently eroded the bayou, perpetuating an ongoing cycle.
These issues have affected the health of the cypress trees, especially in southern Louisiana. Although many pipelines are no longer useful and lie dormant, the industry has not been forced to clean up the mess it left behind.
Scientists weigh in
To address the myriad problems facing cypress trees and coastal forests, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco commissioned a group of government and academic scientists to study the condition of Louisiana’s coastal forests in 2004.
Aptly named the Science Working Group (SWG) on Coastal Wetland Forest Conservation and Use, the scientists worked in conjunction with a Governor’s Advisory Panel, composed of state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, private landowners and private-sector foresters. The result was a frank, unbiased, 121-page report published this April.
SWG estimated Louisiana had roughly 845,692 acres of swamp forest valued at $6.7 billion per acre, per year. Standing cypress-tupelo timber, in the area delineated by SWG, was estimated at $3.3 billion by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. The scientists asserted that cypress trees would not regenerate if they were harvested in coastal areas.
According to SWG, a list of offending agents was responsible for contributing to coastal erosion and the degradation of the forests, including levee construction, channelization for commerce and for oil-and-gas exploration, conversion of forest to urban and agricultural land, and invasive species.
“Successful regeneration of the cypress trees in the 1920s was due to fortuitous conditions existing at that time which, now, no longer exist. Many of the important functions and ecosystem services are lost or degraded even though the trees may be intact and the forest may appear unaffected,” they concluded. That statement caused a stir in the private sector. Many took issue with its wording and allegations.
The truth is, “78 percent of American’s waterways have been altered. If the hydrology is not the natural hydrology of the forest, trees that are harvested do not regenerate,” explained Dr. Beth Middleton, research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. While not a SWG member, she is an expert on flood pulsing, the periodic flooding of lands.
“Flood pulsing drops nutrients and seeds into a region. Without the floods and the subsequent draw-down of the water, there are no new nutrients, no new seeds and no ability for new trees to grow,” she explained.
Because not all of Louisiana’s cypress forests have the same hydrological issues, SWG decided to divide them into the following categories: Class I forests – healthy and able to regenerate naturally if harvested; Class II forests – moderately healthy and having the potential for artificial regeneration if harvested; Class III – in peril and unable to regenerate by natural or artificial means.
According to Dr. Stephen Faulkner, a wetland research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey National Wetlands Research Center and member of the SWG, “The biggest challenge now is determining where Class I, II and III forests are located.” A long, arduous task, it will be the next step in the scientific process.
In the months following the report, the SWG and the Governor’s Advisory Panel held public meetings across Louisiana to explain the SWG report and to listen to public concerns. Well attended, the meetings drew foresters, scientists, government officials, concerned citizens and environmental groups. Passions ran high.
Forestry and the timber industry
Forestry and forest-product industries provided 18,430 manufacturing jobs, 8,000 harvesting -and-transportation-of- timber jobs, and contributed $5.3 billion to Louisiana’s economy last year.
“Our mission is to keep Louisiana growing a sustainable, renewable, healthy crop of trees,” said C.A. “Buck” Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association.
“We don’t manage forests for today, we manage them for 20 years from now,” explained Ray Poole, vice president and chief operating officer of Roy O. Martin Lumber Co. of Alexandria and its sister companies.
The company manages more than 600,000 acres of land in Louisiana, and Poole noted that there is a management plan for each one of his timber stands. “Our forests are managed by professional scientists. Just because we have private property does not give us the ability to do anything that we want. We have to be sustainable. Landowners recognize diversity, and we are protecting the biological composition of the forests,” he said.
The Roy O. Martin Co. recently invested millions of dollars in a new oriented strand board (also called waferboard) mill in Allen Parish that will employ 215 people.
Not all landowners manage their properties for timber profits. Many depend on mineral rights to make a living or to maintain margins.
Rudy Sparks, president of Williams Inc., manages 85,000 acres of forest. The company once owned the largest cypress mill in the world.
“Our company has not had one timber sale south of I-10 in 26 years,” Sparks said.
Levee construction has impounded floodwater on Williams’ and many other private landowners’ properties for years. As a result, the timber stands mired in stagnant water are stressed and in severe decline. “As landowners, we didn’t create the problems, but we have been penalized for them,” he added.
Sparks noted that if the water could be drained, the cypress stands would again become productive and renewable. He hopes that planned water diversion projects will alleviate some of the problems.
Several water diversion projects, such as Buffalo Cove, Davis Pond, Bayou Lafourche, Bayou Plaquemine and Caernarvon, are planned and will be supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers. Some of the diversions will bring freshwater into rivers; others will bring freshwater and much-needed sediment. Debate is ongoing on many of the projects.
While many in forestry agree with the SWG findings, some take issue with them. On some topics, such as a cypress tree’s ability to regenerate from a stump, it seems that science and industry are 180 degrees apart.
Paul Frey and other foresters continually tout the resilient, regenerative properties of cypress and insist that harvested trees will regenerate from their stumps. Frey is assistant commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry as well as state forester.
Scientists Faulkner and Middleton both disagree with Frey. They explained that occasionally trees do regenerate from stumps, but such trees rarely grow strong and usually die after a few years.
It is these debates that have environmentalists fuming and accusing the Department of Forestry of being to lenient toward business.
Environmentalists demand action
Despite glowing reports from the forestry industry about sustainability and habitat conservation, environmentalists remain concerned.
“It just isn’t going to be business as usual in Louisiana,” stated Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network.
According to Sarthou, there is a political movement to undermine the science of the SWG report. She cited an example in the original draft of the SWG report: Scientists recommended a moratorium on cutting of Class III forests. Political pressure, she asserted, boiled their request down to no cutting of Class III forests on state lands. “Are we here to save this place or to document its demise?” she asked.
Environmentalists want policymakers to take action on the SWG report and to pass laws and regulations that will truly preserve Louisiana’s cypress trees, coastal forests and coastline.
“We don’t have 50 years to make policy and prevent further loss and degradation,” said Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.
Doug Daigle, Lower Basin regional director of the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, added, “With all of the talk about Class I, II and III lands, we are worried that private landowners are going to get scared and harvest their timber before they lose their money.”
It is hoped that some of the coming restoration money will be allocated to acquiring such lands from willing buyers to preserve the trees, to expand parks and to create reserves such as the Nature Conservancy’s Cypress Island near Lafayette or the Cat Island Reserve near Baton Rouge. Some of the money could also go to easements.
Dean Wilson, a transplant from Spain to the Atchafalaya and a passionate environmental conservationist, runs swamp tours. He expressed dismay at the current easements and explained that they allow landowners to cut thousands of acres and only require them to preserve 40 square feet of forest. He wants more stringent, functional easements.
“You have to keep your eye on the ball. Here it is the perception of protecting nature, but it’s really Louisiana politics as usual. Most people aren’t educated [on this subject], and they don’t know what is going on. Louisiana is really all about oil and gas,” vehemently stated Mike Bienvenue, a crawfisherman from Catahoula.
Many people claim his statements are well-founded.
Hope for the future?
The coastal erosion situation is serious enough in six oil-producing states – Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Alaska and California – to have warranted a $1 billion provision for coastal impact assistance in the recently passed federal energy bill.
This is a victory for U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, as Louisiana will receive 54 percent – $135 million per year - of the monetary allocation for fiscal years 2007-10.
“This is a new time in Louisiana. From local, parish to state government, everyone understands clearly that we will be under the microscope. Everyone will be watching to see how we spend the money,” said Kerry St. Pé, program director of the Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program.
Louisiana already gets $50 million per year for coastal-restoration projects from the 1990 federal Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act (CWPPRA), commonly referred to as the Breaux Act. With another $135 million per year, the state should be able choose restoration projects and implement them.
While the cost of inaction is estimated to be $100 billion, one could argue that it is truly incalculable. There is no replacement for the estuaries, the spawning grounds for crab, shrimp and catfish, or for the rookeries for fledgling birds. There is also no replacement for cypress trees that will not regenerate themselves.
The SWG report is very frank. It asks Louisiana policymakers to adopt a mission statement about conservation, restoration and managing the coastal forests with the help of the private sector. It requests a moratorium on harvesting cypress on state-owned Class III lands. It also encourages scientific management of Louisiana’s coastal wetland forests and the development of landowner incentives.
In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, protecting Louisiana’s cypress trees and coastal forests and saving the wetlands have taken on new meaning. According to scientists, every 2.7 miles of wetlands absorbs 1 foot of storm surge. Up to 900,000 acres of wetlands have been lost in the last century. The impact of that loss was felt dramatically in southern Louisiana this year.
With its swamps, estuaries, rookeries and cypress trees, Louisiana’s epic beauty is a natural for ecotourism. While the state has not aggressively promoted the sector, Michael Olivier, Louisiana’s secretary of economic development, sees enormous potential for growth. “I would love to see us support and assist projects that would increase tourism and improve the ‘quality-of-life’ factor in the state,” he said.
With an annual budget $50 million to $90 million, Olivier hopes to encourage growth in the sector by allocating more resources and by developing incentives like sales-tax rebates and state income-tax credits.
“People who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them,” Brasseaux said simply.
“I don’t want my grandchildren to turn to me and ask why I didn’t try to save even one of those magnificent cypress trees,” said Sandra Thompson, executive director of the Atchafalaya Basin Program, Department of Natural Resources.
Louisiana now stands at the divergence of two roads. In the past, each time it has come to this divergence, it has chosen unwisely. This time, as Robert Frost would say, it should choose the road least traveled, one that will not see another Land of Dead Giants and the cypress stump as the Louisiana state tree.
This article appears in the Fall 2005 issue of Louisiana Life