CYPRESS WETLAND FORESTS IN THE SOUTHERN U.S.
Cypress wetland forests are among the most productive wetland ecosystems in the world. Bald cypress trees are deciduous conifers and are very closely related to the redwoods and sequoias in the western United States. Because cypress wetlands have trees, they are much more diverse than open marshland. Baldcypress grows to be thousands of years old and produces a big mass of cypress balls and leaves that many animals can eat. Baldcypress sheds its bark and many insects live under the loose bark making Bald cypress the most important trees for all species of woodpeckers. Perhaps the biggest contribution of Baldcypress to the habitat comes in the form of the many cavities that older trees develop and that provide nesting places for otters, minks, raccoons, black bears, beavers, wood ducks, owls and many species of birds and bats. The branches of Bald cypress come out perpendicular to the trunk, making them the chosen trees for most nesting waders like herons, egrets, and ibises.
A cypress-tupelo swamp in the Atchafalaya Basin. Photo by Greg Guirard
In Louisiana, cypress swamps and forests provide unique and irreplaceable habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife like the Louisiana black bear, bald eagles, and the recently rediscovered ivory-billed woodpeckers. These cypress wetlands provide critical habitat for the entire Eastern North American population and several species of the Western population of migratory and neo-tropical songbirds. The cypress swamps are part of Louisiana's national image and support our economy through eco-tourism, including bird watching, swamp tours, wildlife photography and outdoor recreation including fishing, boating and camping. Cypress wetlands also sustain freshwater and coastal fisheries, naturally filter pollutants and excess nutrients before they contaminate swimming and fishing areas, and alleviate global warming by acting as carbon sinks.
LOGGING HISTORY OF SOUTHERN LOUISIANA
Going into a southern swamp 150 years ago was like going into a heavenly cathedral. Huge trunks would rise into the sky 150 feet tall, forming a very thick canopy like a huge ceiling over the swamp. All cypress swamps in the southern United States were logged around the turn of the century. Many of those forests never regenerated. Today, most of the trees in our swamps are only 80 to 120 years old. They are small in size especially in the deep swamps and it will take several hundred years for them to grow back to the size they were at the turn of the century and to provide their full benefits to those ecosystems. A few old-growth trees were left uncut because they were defective or hollow. Many of those very old trees are dying out and it will take several hundred years for the younger ones to replace them.
There were once over 2 million acres of cypress-tupelo swamps in Louisiana; only 800,000 acres recovered from the first logging. Logging to produce cypress mulch started in the year 2000.
Ivory Swamp, a cypress-tupelo forest before logging.
Ivory Swamp just after logging.
Chinese tallow and black willow were the major tree species to grow in the Ivory Swamp after the cypress
trees were logged.
In the sense that none of those forests have fully recovered from the first logging and that if logged again today even under the best conditions it will take another one hundred years to grow back to their former size and provide the same ecological benefits that we get today, I do not think that we can consider any of those forests renewable. If the question is whether this species of tree will be present again one day if they are logged now, we can find the answer in the most comprehensive study ever done on this issue. In 2004, the Governor of Louisiana commissioned a Science Working Group to study and assess our coastal wetland forests and to provide recommendations for their conservation and use. In April 2005 the group released their final report. The report can be found at: www.coastalforestswg.lsu.edu. In this report, the scientists divided Louisiana's coastal wetland forests into three condition classes. Condition class III wetland forests are forests that will never regenerate and cannot be replanted. Condition class II areas are wetland forests that only have the potential to regenerate if replanted and artificially supported. Because of herbivores like nutria and deer, the only way to restore a Class II swamp is to provide protection from foraging herbivores, which is very costly.
Class I wetland forests have "potential" for regeneration. Many Class I swamps in the study were not regenerating because other faster growing, invasive tree species like the Chinese tallow and box elder were crowding the baldcypress out.
Cypress forests provide critical protection for coastal communities by protecting those communities from the worst of hurricane and tidal storm surges and minimize flooding by capturing excess water. Restoring or improving natural wetlands is much cheaper than large-scale man-made flood protection methods in most cases. For example, the cost of replacing the flood control function of the 5,000 acres of wetlands drained each year in Minnesota alone would be $1.5 million, compared to the billions lost to flood damage (Source: The Wetlands Initiative). Recent literature has estimated the monetized annual benefits of Louisiana's coastal wetland forests at $6.7 billion per year or more than double the monetized benefits of the harvested timber ($3.3 billion one-time deal). Hurricane Katrina dramatically illustrated the costs of inadequate flood protection. The loss of more than 1,000 lives and billions of dollars is a wakeup call. The construction of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet navigation channel in St. Bernard parish allowed a huge storm surge funnel to form which contributed greatly to more intense flooding in Chalmette and in New Orleans East which includes the Lower Ninth Ward. The creation of the MRGO channel directly caused the loss of hundreds of acres of cypress wetlands, New Orleans and St. Bernard's natural flood protection barrier. Wetland restoration and protection is a key part of an overall strategy for reducing future risks.
Harvesting our beautiful cypress forests, for the most part, is not sustainable and should be stopped. Much of the clamor for a new wave of logging is driven by consumer demand for cypress mulch, a product that is cheaper for the industry to bring to market than high quality cypress lumber. Also, cypress trees can be harvested for mulch even before they are mature enough for profitable harvesting for lumber. Because a 100-year-old cypress tree is still a young and usually small tree, this is exactly what is happening in Louisiana.
The cypress mulch industry has severely reduced Florida's cypress forests and has now fully moved into Louisiana. It is obvious that as long as there is a market for cheap cypress mulch, the industry will not stop until they have depleted all cypress forests in the country. Consumers are attracted to cypress mulch due to its out-dated reputation as an insect-repellant, more durable mulch. The truth is that those characteristics existed only in older trees that had the time to develop heartwood and today's trees are too young to possess those traits.
Cypress logging for mulch started again in the year 2000. At one time inquiries about the legality of logging over half a million acres of cypress forests went through the Army Corps of Engineers Office. From the year 2000 to the year 2006 (in six years) over 80,000 acres of cypress-tupelo swamps were logged in the state of Louisiana-that is over one-tenth of the remaining cypress-tupelo swamps in the state. In some years swamps were being logged at a rate of 20,000 acres a year. Today we have managed to stop most of the logging with only a few hundred acres logged in south Louisiana in 2008. Undoubtedly, without the work of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, most cypress-tupelo swamps in the state of Louisiana would have been made into mulch. Today the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper is a national leader in the movement to stop the cypress mulch industry in the United States.
ATCHAFALAYA BASINKEEPER VERSUS LOGGERS
In the early 1990s, landowners in the Atchafalaya Basin were talking about logging everything in the Basin, removing even the big old growth stumps left from logging times, to make cypress mulch, and no group was taking serious actions to deal with the threat looming over the Atchafalaya Basin and the rest of Louisiana. This fact eventually convinced Dean to become the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper.
Today the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper is a national leader in the movement to stop the cypress mulch industry in the United States. We got there by fighting logging on all fronts:
There are two laws that could be applied to protect forested wetlands forests: Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act was being enforced by the Corps of Engineers at the time that we came into the environmental arena. Louisiana's congressmen tried to put pressure at the Washington DC headquarters to stop the New Orleans District from enforcing Section 10 and we were very fortunate that the general public supported the district's attempts to enforce Section 10. There were two problems: Section 10 applies only to swamps that are under the ordinary high water mark and are connected to navigable waters, and the Corps had only 8 people in the field from the entire New Orleans District and they did not even own a boat.
The Atchafalaya Basinkeeper started to help the Corps identify illegal logging, making it very clear to the industry that they could no longer get away with more illegal logging under Section 10. The industry responded by trying to get rid of the law. Senator Vitter of Louisiana amended his water bill to ask for nearly two billion dollars for wetland restoration in Louisiana. The amendment would have effectively crippled Section 10 and not only would have allowed for massive logging operations in those wetlands but also for massive destruction to the land itself. Protecting Section 10 became one of our main goals.
Meanwhile, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act was not being enforced by the Corps of Engineers because the EPA was dragging their feet in making a determination on whether cypress logging on wetlands was exempt from a Section 404 permit as a normal silviculture practice, although it was clear from scientific studies that many of those forests will not regenerate, disqualifying this practice from being silviculture. (Today, thanks to our lawsuit victory in Georgia, to qualify for the silviculture exemption, the cypress trees in question must have been planted and tended.)
First, we warned U.S. Senators from other states about the amendment; Senators Clinton, Lieberman, Boxer, Jeffords, Carper, and Chafee responded with a paper of their own explaining the truth about Section 10 and that was against the Vitter amendment. Vitter was defeated and forced to remove his amendment from the bill.
Next, we organized a coalition of environmental groups and went to Washington D.C. to speak with our senators and U.S. representatives and to educate EPA about the cypress logging issue in Louisiana. In those meetings several groups were represented, including Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, National Sierra Club, Louisiana's Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club, Baton Rouge Audubon, National Audubon, and America's Wetlands. We did a power point presentation with graphic pictures of the logging and a scientist from the Louisiana Governor's Science Working Group was on hand to answer questions about regeneration.
After our trip to Washington we took top EPA officials from their office in Dallas and the head enforcer of the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers into the Atchafalaya swamps in an attempt to show them that regeneration was not possible for most of our swamps. EPA agreed with us and took our position. Today EPA, for the first time ever, is enforcing Section 404 of the Clean Water Act on illegal logging operations.
There is no feasible way to control or determine which mulch is coming from a potentially renewable forest and which mulch is coming from a certainly non-renewable forest. Corporations like Corbitt who produce "No Float" cypress mulch, have shown us that they will go to any length to deceive retailers and the public about where they are getting their mulch just so they can sell their product. Big retailers are selling an illegal product and using false advertising to sell it.
We helped to create a lawsuit in Georgia and joined the lawsuit as friends of the court; as a result of that incredible victory, the court directed EPA and the Corps to look into the past to decide whether a logging operation is normal silviculture practice and that to be silviculture, spontaneous tree growth does not qualify and active planting and tree care must have taken place in the past. More lawsuits will follow, broadening the enforcement powers of the EPA.
We identified this logging site on a monitoring flight provided by SouthWings.
The Atchafalaya Basinkeeper is the only group that directly helps the Corps of Engineers to identify, document and ultimately stop logging operations. We are also the only group that documented and still documents the chain of command, which was critical to stopping the massive cypress logging operations that were taking place in Southern Louisiana.
Ready for a monitoring flight, courtesy of SouthWings.
We fly several times a year over the Atchafalaya Basin, Maurepas Basin, Upper Barataria-Terrabonne Basin, and the Pearl River Basin looking for logging operations. We also fly over the mulch plants to monitor cypress mulch activity. We also rely on the general public that reports to us cypress-logging activities.
Once a lumber company gets notice from the Corps, that company is out of illegal logging for good.
THE MARKET, RETAILERS
Supposedly "made from environmentally harvested cypress", cypress mulch often comes from unsustainably harvested cypress trees, leaving clearcuts in our Louisiana swamps.
One of Dean's first priorities as a Basinkeeper was to educate The Waterkeeper Alliance and other environmental groups and share with them the ugly facts and the mounting evidence against the mulch industry. With the help of LEAN and the Waterkeeper Alliance we had our first great victory with an agreement from Lowe's and The Home Depot not to sell any more cypress mulch from coastal Louisiana. Soon after the Save Our Cypress Coalition was created and thanks to a joint effort from all members of the Coalition, Wal-Mart announced that they would stop selling cypress mulch harvested, manufactured or bagged in the State of Louisiana. Today Lowe's and The Home Depot have a boundary and they will not sell cypress mulch harvested below the I-10 I-12 corridor.
We expanded our Coalition to other states and I am actively teaching other groups from other states how to monitor for illegal logging in their states. I am also meeting with forestry associations from other states to educate them about the problems with the industry and the exploits of the Louisiana Forestry Association.
SouthWings' board of directors approved making cypress logging one of their main priorities. Together with LEAN, the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, other Waterkeeper programs, SouthWings and The Gulf Restoration Network, we hope to put a halt to this scourge once and for all; our swamps will never be completely safe until we do.
The Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, as the lead group on these efforts, has the moral obligation to push this issue to the end.
Over the past five years we have given hundreds of presentations about the issue to environmental groups, schools, civic groups, politicians, agencies, and the media. Today, thanks to the hard work of many groups, people from all over the nation know about the issue, and the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper planted that seed.