Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sun Oct 15 22:05:37 EDT 2006

Between saltwater intrusion and loggers' saws, a valuable storm barrier is
Sunday, October 15, 2006
By Matthew Brown
West Bank bureau

MAUREPAS SWAMP -- Deep in the cypress swamps, where the mud is thigh-deep,
the water a stagnant brown and the buzz of mosquitoes maddeningly
inescapable, the inner reaches of Louisiana's coast are falling to chain
saws and rot.

Even as the timber industry pushes into the swamps to eke another round of
logging from forests last harvested a century ago, the tree-killing waters
of the Gulf of Mexico are seeping ever deeper into areas such as the
Maurepas Swamp, a sprawling wetlands that encircles Lake Maurepas in St.
John the Baptist, Tangipahoa, Livingston and Ascension parishes. Traveling
inland through canals cut for shipping and oil and gas exploration, the
invading spike of salt water has turned tens of thousands of acres of
cypress stands into an ecological wasteland of dead and dying trees.

Pinched from both sides, the remaining cypress groves are emerging as a
crucial battleground in the struggle between restoring the coast and
continuing to reap its once-plentiful resources.

State forestry officials estimate south Louisiana's cypress forests are cut
at the rate of 8,000 to 10,000 acres a year. Industry representatives say
most of those acres will regrow, and even logging opponents agree that
natural forces appear to be killing trees at a faster rate. But the
opponents add that curtailing logging, particularly in the most vulnerable
areas, is the first step that should be taken to reverse the swamps'

Around 1900, the last time the cypress trees were felled in the Maurepas
Swamp and other areas across southeast Louisiana, those dark and
inhospitable backwaters were valued solely in terms of how much timber they

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they have attained the near-sacred status
of storm barrier. In St. Bernard Parish, for example, the absence of cypress
stands that once shielded Chalmette and surrounding communities is said to
have hastened the breaching of levees and caused the human death toll to

Swamp forests that were once exclusively freshwater are now brackish,
stunting or killing trees and rapidly erasing a crucial line in Louisiana's
natural hurricane defenses. Areas that used to dry out periodically now stay
flooded year-round, preventing any new cypress trees from taking hold.

Industry challenged

Louisiana's timber industry for decades enjoyed nearly automatic exemptions
from federal laws protecting wetlands, on the assumption that whatever the
loggers cut would grow back over time.

But regulators from the Army Corps of Engineers recently have taken a more
aggressive stance, issuing at least three cease-and-desist orders on timber
operations in the Maurepas Swamp over the past four years.

This summer, the federal Environmental Protection Agency weighed in on a
fourth case, questioning whether a 200-acre cypress logging operation in
Livingston Parish represented silviculture, or sustainable logging. The
owner's request for a Clean Water Act exemption remains hung up in the
permitting process. Michael Farabee of the corps' regulatory branch said the
case is the first Louisiana cypress logging operation in memory for which a
permit has been required.

"It's true that after the first cut Louisiana's cypress came back, but now
that's very much in question," said John Ettinger of the EPA. "Since that
time there have been major landscape changes.

"It is no longer a given. If you saw extensive logging in there (the
Maurepas Swamp), you would have extensive loss of cypress."

Odom helps mill

Yet the state's $5 billion timber industry has a powerful ally in Louisiana
Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, whose agency helped arrange financing for
construction of a new cypress mill that opened in Roseland, in Tangipahoa
Parish, last year. Odom's department has been pushing the corps to ease up
on landowners. His Office of Forestry sent the corps a letter in July saying
recent dry weather has led to "a near perfect opportunity" for harvesting on
one of the disputed sites. The letter also criticized "delays" caused by the

Extensive cypress logging has occurred in recent months around Lac Des
Allemands in St. Charles and Lafourche parishes and in scattered sites
within the Atchafalaya River Basin. Corps officials say logging is
permissible in those areas.

Still, the current pace is only a fraction of the industry's heyday. Cypress
logging peaked in 1913 with the harvest of 744 million board feet of cypress
lumber -- several hundred times the current rate, according to state
Forester Paul Frey. Today, with the industry much more aware of
sustainability issues, Frey said, landowners have realized they can no
longer cut any and all cypress in their path.

"We are at a crossroads, to some degree," Frey said. "We have identified or
plan to identify cypress forests that are in a condition of decline, but
also realize there are cypress forests that are growing and can be harvested
in a sustainable fashion. Do we want to portray it as healthy, or do we want
to portray it as in decline and at risk? We have to portray both, because we
have both."

Frey also rejected persistent claims by environmentalists that much of the
cypress ends up as garden mulch. He estimated that about 15 percent of the
timber harvested meets that fate, while most of the rest is used for
higher-end products such as cypress molding or paneling for houses.

Disappearing swamps

There are an estimated 845,000 acres of coastal cypress swamps across south
Louisiana, down from historic estimates of at least 2.2 million acres in the
mid-1800s. A state-federal coastal restoration task force has estimated
231,000 acres of swamp forests could be lost in the next 50 years. That's on
top of any losses due to logging.

Until now, attention to Louisiana's disappearing wetlands has centered on
crumbling barrier islands and ever-shrinking saltwater marshes -- landscape
changes at the outermost border between Louisiana and the Gulf. But as the
erosion migrates inward, vast swaths of swamp are dying off, and state
officials say the strategy to restore the coast needs to be reformulated to
include those forests.

"You see a lot of dying forests, and it's not that no one is noticing," said
Sidney Coffee, chairwoman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and
Restoration Authority. "But we're really not incorporating that notion in
any real meaningful way from the aspects of risk and protection."

Gary Shaffer, a biology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University in
Hammond, has spent the past seven years slogging through Maurepas Swamp to
diagnose the health of its cypress and tupelo trees. On a recent windless
day, Shaffer steered a university research boat into the Reserve Canal on
the east side of Lake Maurepas and pulled up to the edge of the swamp.
Accompanied by SLU graduate student Bernard Wood, he pulled on a pair of
rubber hip waders and trudged into the swamp interior to check on one of 52
study plots set up to track the growth of 3,000 trees.

Their study, underwritten by a federal grant, will be used as a baseline to
gauge whether a future $50 million project to divert Mississippi River water
into the swamp is successful in accelerating growth.

"Since the study started, we've lost about a third of the trees that were
around the lake. That's how fast it's going," Shaffer said.

Altered landscape

The decline started in the 1960s, after the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet
shipping channel, about 50 miles away in St. Bernard Parish, allowed a rush
of salt water from the Gulf to cross Lake Pontchartrain and enter Lake

Levees already had cut off periodic flooding from the Mississippi. And spoil
banks left over from when waterways such as the Reserve Canal were cut
altered the drainage within the swamps and kept the trees inundated with
brackish water much of the year.

It was slow going through the swamp as Wood and Shaffer time and again sank
almost to the top of their waders. They paused frequently to take long
drinks of water, in a futile attempt to stave off the 90-degree heat. Then
it was back to work, wrapping selected trees with a measuring tape to record
their girth against last year's measurements.

Shaffer approached an exceptionally large cypress that had a diameter of
66.5 centimeters, a little more than 2 feet, when it was last measured in
2005. "Here you go, Grandpa," he said as he pulled out the measuring tape.
"66.50. No growth. Nothing."

Over the course of his study, the trees have grown on average about 1
millimeter a year. "That's the thickness of a credit card," he said "For a
large tree, that's nothing. A healthy cypress can grow 10 to 20 times that

Of the 224,000 acres that make up the Maurepas Swamp, Shaffer calculates
that about 156,000 acres, or 70 percent, is "relic," meaning it would not
grow back if the trees were cut. Another 37,000 acres, or 16 percent,
already has converted from freshwater swamp to saltwater marsh. That leaves
about 31,000 acres, or 14 percent, that is sustainable, he said.

"We're on a trajectory toward open water right now," he said. "Most of the
swamp will go down in the next couple of decades. . . . And I'd say the
Maurepas is on the good side of things. The Barataria and Verret basins are
even worse. The hydrology is too messed up. It's too flooded and it's too

Shaffer is hopeful the planned Mississippi River diversion -- about 2,000
cubic feet of freshwater per second into the Hope Canal at the southeast
corner of the Maurepas -- will be built in time to turn back the salt water
killing off the swamp.

But if in the interim logging operations such as those now blocked by the
corps are allowed to resume, he said, the damage would be difficult to
reverse. "The system would go like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

'New forests will grow'

Landowners and timber industry representatives contend such claims are
exaggerated, applicable only to portions of the coastal forests. They say a
prime example is 200 acres in the Maurepas owned by Steve Buratt, the
property for which the EPA has raised regeneration questions.

Buratt did not return several calls seeking comment. But forestry officials
say they have been authorized to speak on his behalf.

A prolonged drought over the past year and a half, a dry period interrupted
but not broken by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, dried up much of the standing
water on Buratt's property. That has created ideal conditions for the
cypress to regenerate, said C.A. "Buck" Vandersteen, executive director of
the Louisiana Forestry Association.

"The swamps have dried up, and it's no longer a deep-water area,"
Vandersteen said. "The seeds can start sprouting again, and new forests will

Michael Thomas of the state Office of Forestry agrees. "The way these
natural processes work is you get the seeds, you cut them, the sunlight
comes in and then the trees come back. It takes a long time, but that's the
way forestry works," Thomas said.

That's not the way it worked for a large patch of another swamp, the
Manchac, that separates Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, Shaffer said.
After the cypress trees in that area were harvested between 70 and 100 years
ago, fewer trees came back, and most have since died because of high
salinity levels.

Heyden Reno, whose family has lived in the community of Manchac for
generations, said his only knowledge of those cypress stands came from his
uncles, now dead, who described them to him when he was a child.

"You have the little bits that they could remember about it, but that's not
the same as seeing it. There's not even any good pictures of it," Reno said.
"It's hard to believe it was 100 years ago. It could have been a thousand
years ago. There's no difference now."

. . . . . . .

Matthew Brown can be reached at mbrown at timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3784.

More information about the StBernard mailing list