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Louisiana's Mulch Madness

Cypress forests are the state's best defense against hurricanes. So why are loggers clear-cutting the last trees?

After the 1920s, when loggers hacked down the last of the old growth, the timber industry more or less forgot about cypress. With levees newly in place, the Gulf of Mexico crept inland, and the second-generation cypress matured in shallow, brackish water. They grew tall but skinny, making them worthless for lumber—you might get one decent plank out of a whole log—so nobody bothered to cut them. That is, until a housing boom cranked up the demand for landscaping mulch. Between 2000 and 2004, new home construction in Louisiana soared by 56 percent. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, home construction spiked another 26 percent; in addition to mulch surrounding new construction, homeowners replaced mountains of old mulch that were washed away.

Army Corps staffers—derided after Katrina and now expected to fortify the coast against future storms—are understandably frustrated with the free-for-all. "The state of Louisiana is asking for billions of dollars in federal tax money to restore coastal wetlands," says John Bruza, chief of surveillance and enforcement for the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana. "At the same time, it's allowing the cypress swamps to be clearcut and harvested."

To make matters more complicated, 90 percent of the Atchafalaya is private property, often held in families for generations. (King Charles III of Spain bequeathed Carline's great-great-great-grandfather his 200-acre plot in 1784.) Much of the swamp lies within St. Martin Parish, where annual income per capita barely tops $13,000. No wonder that the $1,500 to $3,000 per acre the timber companies offer landowners is enticing.

And no wonder, too, that together with the timber industry—Louisiana's second largest after oil and gas, and one of the state's biggest employers—landowners have successfully blocked any regulatory reforms. Currently cypress logging is illegal only if it violates certain conditions stipulated in the federal Clean Water and Rivers and Harbors acts meant to protect navigable waterways and minimize pollution. The Corps and the epa are charged with enforcing those laws. But the laws have been much weakened by the Bush administration, and the only full-time swamp cops are Bruza's team of two and John Ettinger at the epa.

"I'll be honest with you: Enforcement is really tough, incredibly difficult," says Ettinger. "It's a huge coast with a vast amount of wetlands. You've got to be in a plane, or a boat going up and down the minor waterways. I'm the only epa person doing wetlands in Louisiana. The rest of our team is in Dallas. Sure, I see logging trucks on the road with cypress. But it's impossible to tell where they came from. Some of it may be legal; some of it might not."

"The problem is how fast it happens," explains Wilson. "They can log a thousand acres in a week. By the time somebody sees the trucks coming out of an area and it gets reported, it's too late."

one evening, carline suggests we take his two pirogues out from camp for a quick jaunt. A pirogue looks like a dugout canoe, only the gunnels ride about an inch from the waterline and it's so tipsy you can capsize it by sneezing too hard. Carline has jury-rigged a four-horsepower lawn-mower engine to one and tows Wilson and me behind him in the second. We sputter into the swamp. A cold front has rolled in and gusty winds blast through the cypress. As darkness falls and we switch on our flashlights, scores of iridescent orange embers appear bobbing on the surface. Alligators. I yank my hands back from the gunnels.

The reptilian army encircling our pirogues is just one example of the flourishing wildlife in the Atchafalaya. Earlier we spotted kingfishers, owls, hawks, vultures, and just about every species of heron. Water moccasins slither quietly beside us. Nutria (giant South American swimming rats introduced in the 1930s for fur) breach the surface like tiny submarines prowling for food. Turtles scurry from muddy banks into the water, startled by our grumbling outboard engine. We discover a family of beavers dozing in its lodge, which is bigger than was my college dorm room.

It's hardly the most charismatic bunch of critters—and because so many creepy, crawly, and often dangerous creatures share the swamp with people who tend to be poor and powerless, it can be easy to dismiss its importance. Don't be fooled: The Atchafalaya is a rich and vital ecosystem. It's a playground for hunters, anglers, and wilderness connoisseurs—who in 2006 contributed $2 billion a year to the state's economy.

But the cypress' most tangible value is as a surge protector. "If a community is protected by a cypress forest, you don't have to spend $100 million to construct levees," says Barry Kohl, a geology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans and conservation chair of the Louisiana Audubon Society. "Long-term flood protection—that's worth a lot more than its value as lumber or mulch."

Until the vast network of canals and levees was built, a cypress buffer encircled New Orleans. But as the wetlands sank and saltwater seeped inland, the forests died off. "There were a few parts of New Orleans where levees were unaffected by Katrina," says Gary Shaffer, a biology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and a coauthor on the swg study. "Almost every single one of those areas had cypress in front of it."

In the report it issued four months before Katrina hit, the Science Working Group created a three-class system to categorize Louisiana's cypress-tupelo forests: Class I, swampland that can regenerate cypress naturally because of seasonal dry spells. Class II describes shallow areas that can sustain seedlings, if they are hand planted and tall enough to breach the waterline. In Class III, the cypress will not regenerate, even if replanted, because deep, salty water persists year-round.

These categories have no force of law. Nevertheless Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association, insists that "99 percent of cypress being harvested is Class I and II" and that the remaining 1 percent is salvage timber—downed trees blocking navigable waterways. He also said, "We planted 400,000 cypress trees last year alone." But Bruza at the Army Corps disputes this. "We've issued cease-and-desist orders [at illegal sites] and know of no cypress swamps that have been harvested and replanted," he says.

By the time a bag of mulch makes it to a retail store, it's likely passed through several different hands. Big mulch operations such as Corbitt Manufacturing, which produces the No-Float and Florida Gold brands, buy their logs from smaller producers, who in turn have agreements with landowners. Producers also don't always advertise the original source of their wood, instead printing out-of-state corporate addresses on mulch bags and letting people assume that's where the mulch came from. Wilson's campaign has helped convince Wal-Mart to cease buying or selling mulch known to be derived from Louisiana cypress, but it's unclear how the company can police such a policy. Lowe's says it has "implemented a moratorium" on cypress harvested between I-10 and I-12, an area that the company has deemed ecologically sensitive. But Lowe's, too, has no way to verify its suppliers are complying. At Home Depot, Ron Jarvis, the senior vice president of environmental innovation, says he's in discussions with the Rainforest Alliance and other groups to certify that the company's cypress comes exclusively from sustainably harvested forests. There's only one problem: The swg report showed there are virtually none in coastal Louisiana.

Those scientists recommended Louisiana landowners be given incentives to preserve their cypress. A more radical option is a statewide ban on cypress logging. But you can be sure the timber industry will fight hard against any such provisions. "Placing a moratorium on buying cypress would totally devalue the land and put an entire industry out of business," argues Frank Vallot, who owns Louisiana State Cypress, a major mulch producer based in Roseland. He adds that landowners would just sell to developers who'd drain the swamp. "Not cutting a tree is not going to fix anything. The trees will die anyway. The saltwater is killing them. I've talked to a bunch of scientists in the swg and I agree with what they say, that if we don't change the way freshwater gets to the swamplands, we're not going to ever fix the problem."

Nobody I speak with disputes this fact. If the natural river delta were restored, "it would bring sediments and nutrients, push out the saltwater, and the swamp would grow again like it used to," says Shaffer. "With a reliable source of freshwater, you could have cypress seedlings that grow 30 feet tall in 10 years."

Yet even after a cypress dies from saltwater poisoning, its roots, trunk, and limbs can remain standing strong for up to 200 years, presenting a formidable barrier against storm surges. Wilson knows this, which is why he has no plans to retreat. "I might have 20 to 30 years left if the loggers don't kill me first," he declares. It's my last night in the Atchafalaya and I'm sipping Abita, a local ale, on Wilson's porch while he cooks up his secret crawfish recipe, a salty stew of Cajun spices, potatoes, frankfurters, lemons, and a pouch of disturbingly orange powder called Swamp Fire.

The next morning we meet a local pilot who's agreed to fly us over the swamp in search of clearcuts. Our single-engine Cessna climbs out of Baton Rouge, an urban island in the midst of a lush swampland. We head east and fly low, and after a few minutes are circling above Vallot's timber facility. Wilson hands me his binoculars. A mechanical loader is grabbing whole trees from a conveyor belt and feeding them into a mulcher, which spits the diced bits onto a giant mound. We veer south, toward the Gulf of Mexico. Between us and the sea is a dense blanket of seemingly impenetrable cypress, interrupted only by chocolate-tinged bayous that look like brown serpents slithering through an emerald ocean. Soon a square of scarred land appears—a massive clearcut. "That's a fresh one!" Wilson shouts over the engine drone. He asks me to log the coordinates into a handheld gps so he can return later by boat. "They have no right in hell to cut those trees," he yells, "because if we lose the cypress, we will lose the whole swamp." On the distant horizon, the skyscrapers of New Orleans rise through the haze.

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