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Much Ado About Mulch

Wal-Mart has agreed to stop selling Louisiana cypress mulch, but much more needs to be done to protect the state's iconic tree.

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Nearly two years ago, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott announced a goal to make the world's largest company green. Included among the litany of factors that challenge Wal-Mart's eco-initiative are its carbon footprint, composed of 19.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gases last year; the company's involvement in the toxic toy trade; and its continued endorsement of products made from unsustainable resources. While plenty of folks aren't buying Wal-Mart's campaign to become sustainable, the company recently struck a chord locally with its decision to stop buying Louisiana cypress mulch starting Jan. 1, 2008.

'I'm very excited, and I'm holding my breath," says Dean Wilson, who for seven years has been tracking what he believes are harmful practices by the cypress mulch industry. Wilson regularly monitors the harvesting of cypress across south Louisiana, documenting which stands are being cut and where the trees are being milled. 'I hope Lowes and Home Depot do the right thing, too."

While cypress mulching activities in the Atchafalaya and Maurepas basins appear to have lost momentum, the threat to cypress forests lingers, Wilson says. Lowes and Home Depot continue to purchase mulch ground from Louisiana cypress forests. Lowes has stated that it has implemented a moratorium on mulch from cypress harvested south of I-10/I-12 in Louisiana " excluding the Pearl River Basin.

Meanwhile, there is no consensus on the question of which Louisiana cypress forests are 'sustainable." The state has yet to map 'endangered" versus 'renewable" forests " a move that could help landowners, conservationists and timber interests strike a balance " and there exists no certification process to verify cypress sources.

In the face of so much uncertainty, Wilson sticks to his beat, checking for new logging sites and cataloging changes to old ones.

On a hot September afternoon, Wilson parks his truck near a logging site in the Ivory Swamp in Iberville Parish. Kristy, a homeowner, walks across the street to check on Wilson. She knows who Wilson is, and she is interested in preserving what's left of the Ivory Swamp.

'My kids, my grandkids, cannot even live to see it like it was," she tells him. 'My son grew up in that swamp. That was where they stayed." Kristy points to the sun-beaten, clear-cut tract of land across the street from her home. 'None of them turned to cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. To this day those are good kids. Makes us sick, ya'll. Go look at it, ya'll. Looks like a war-zone."

Walking almost knee deep in water-filled ruts left by logging equipment, Wilson surveys land that was clear-cut in 2005. He has revisited this place several times since the harvest and recorded the changes. He carefully notes and photographs an occurrence that he says is typical of clear-cut cypress forest: the cypresses don't grow back; instead, 'trash trees" like Chinese tallow and willow become the dominant tree. In a 40-by-40-yard area, Wilson finds only two cypresses " regenerating as sprouts from a stump " out of what were once dozens if not hundreds of flourishing iconic state trees.

Wilson says this kind of logging is not in the landowner's best interest. 'We don't want a wasteland of timber," he says. 'We want to create a win-win situation for everybody."

Ironically, says Wilson, most of the logs from that particular Ivory Swamp cut went to Wal-Mart, with a Florida address on the bag. He was there while the trees were harvested and followed the logging trucks to a processing plant. Wilson's photographs of the process are posted on an interactive Web site: http://www.lmrk.org/index.html.

Not far from the Ivory Swamp, near the small town of French Settlement, Mike Thomas, the state's stewardship coordinator for the Office of Forestry, views the landscape with a different eye. Looking on land that was clear-cut of its cypress-tupelo forest in 2001, Thomas sees a lush field of new growth. Pointing to a number of sprouting young trees, Thomas says, 'This is a forest to me " not a big forest, not all cypress " but it's got trees on it." Thomas says forests are always changing. 'Stopping the natural drainage " changing the hydrology " is really the problem," says Thomas.

Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association, warns that cypress advocates may inadvertently cause more harm than good: 'If environmentalists want to see the land developed, they are doing exactly the right thing." Vandersteen says when environmentalists deprive landowners of the right to make money from timber leases, they put pressure on landowners to sell their property to developers, who will clear the trees and put the land to commercial or residential uses.

When asked about the probability of development occurring on a healthy cypress swamp, Michael Farabee, project manager for permit applications for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says, 'All of our [permit] reviews are based on environmental impact. The greater the impact the more stringent the review process."

The Corps' involvement in the ongoing dispute between members of the timber industry and the cypress swamp conservationists dates back to 1994, when it began to apply Section 10 of the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act to logging operations in Louisiana.

Section 10 allows the Corps to regulate any structures built into navigable waters. The Corps contends that the law gives it authority to require a permit for 'mat roads," which are cut-and-stacked trees that loggers use to bring their equipment in and out of wetland forests.

The Corps recently denied a Section 10 permit to Steve Buratt, a Livingston Parish landowner who sought to use mat roads on 200 acres of cypress swamp. Farabee says Buratt's permit was denied because of a lack of information needed from the landowner. Buratt declined to discuss the issue because he is in the process of appealing the Corps' denial.

Elsewhere, people in the timber industry dispute many of Wilson's claims about the economics of mulching. They argue that a mulch-only operation offers small rewards compared to higher-value cypress products, such as boards and veneer.

'When I turn a log into a board, it's 3.8 times more valuable than mulch," says Frank Vallot, CEO of five sawmills operating under Acadian Hardwoods and Cypress. Vallot's mills include the Louisiana State Cypress mill, which produces high-grade cypress lumber as well as some cypress mulch in Ponchatoula. Vallot says he goes to great lengths to make sure that the cypress logs he buys are not from threatened swamps, and he uses every possible length of log to produce high-end cypress board. 'I only mulch as a by-product," he says.

Vallot says his Ponchatoula mill employs seven people to help produce boards from cypress logs, a process that takes 75 days. 'That costs a lot with workers sitting there during the drying and procuring," he says.

Dr. Joseph Chang, professor of forestry at LSU's School of Renewable Resources, agrees with Vallot and says it doesn't make sense for a typical sawmill owner to turn large cypress trees into mulch. 'Typically, the log is the most expensive part of the cost of lumber production," says Chang, whose research interests include forest economics and log sawing optimization. 'It costs more to buy the log than anything else " 65 to 70 percent of the total cost."

One exception to that general rule is trees that are 'not large enough to travel the miles and become a higher-value product," says Vandersteen. Those trees are mulched.

Consumer demand for mulch also factors into the equation. Environmentalists argue that the products' popularity is what drives buyers like Home Depot and Lowe's to stock their shelves with cypress mulch.

Wilson was part of a local team that helped shape Wal-Mart's decision. In the company's recent statement on cypress mulch in Louisiana, Wal-Mart acknowledged that cypress forests in south Louisiana help protect the state from hurricanes by diminishing the impact of storm surge. Wal-Mart has decided that it will not buy cypress mulch that is harvested, processed or manufactured in Louisiana 'in order to extend the lifespan of the coastal Wetland forests in southern Louisiana" and because 'there is no agreed-upon standard or uniform certification program for designating sustainable areas of cypress forest in Louisiana."

In 2005, a state agency called the Coastal Wetland Forest Conservation and Use Science Working Group (SWG) released a report that used the best available science to identify Louisiana's 'coastal forests," which include cypress forests, cypress trees and their coastal wetland forest home. The SWG's work produced information that, if further developed by the state into regulatory maps, could provide a guideline for the timber industry.

The 'coastal forests" identified by the SWG report are home to Louisiana's cypress at large " as far north as Avoyelles Parish and the parishes on the northeast Louisiana-Mississippi border. The SWG recommends that Louisiana expand its target area for large-scale restoration and include the 'coastal forests" identified by the group.

Dr. Richard Keim, an SWG member, explains that while the wetland forests in Slidell differ from those in the Maurepas Basin, they share unique ecological features. Dr. Gary Shaffer, a wetlands scientist, cypress expert and SWG member, says there is no disconnect between forests north and south of the I-10/I-12 corridor: 'Water that drains from Washington Parish will influence " increase or decrease " the hydrology of forests farther south."

In addition to defining a territory for the trees in question, the SWG report classified swamps into three categories based on re-growth potential. Class 1 regenerates naturally, Class 2 requires replanting and Class 3 areas cannot recover from logging. The SWG recommends that the state use these classifications 'for management, restoration, protection and use purposes." The group also recommends that the state put a priority on maintaining 'hydrologic conditions" on Class 1 swamps and delay harvesting on all Class 3 lands because they will not regenerate.

Landowners, activists, members of the forest service and the timber industry all agree that the state must develop regulatory maps, including swamp classifications, to delineate and to identify what is and what is not 'sustainable" forest. Not knowing makes sound logging practices and law enforcement difficult, if not impossible.

'This is the best science we have on cypress forests in south Louisiana," the Corps' Michael Farabee says of the SWG's report. 'You can't ignore that."

In addition to maps, almost everyone agrees on a second vital tool for preserving Louisiana's coast and interior: landowners need to receive benefits for maintaining rather than cutting cypress forests.

Rudy Sparks owns 125,000 acres of south Louisiana's roughly 850,000 acres of cypress-tupelo forests. He has leases with oil, gas, mineral and timber interests. Speaking from experience, Sparks says landowners need to generate revenue from their properties just as business owners need to turn a profit. 'They have to pay taxes on it," he says. But financing cypress forests is not easy in areas where such forests are in decline. 'They need incentives to put their properties back to forestland," Sparks says.

While 80 percent of Louisiana's coast is privately owned, Sparks says landowners have never received subsidies for retaining or halting floodwater, a job handled well by cypress forests. Changes in infrastructure " levees, railroads and highways " in addition to changes in hydrology " flooding, impounded backwater and saltwater intrusion " have left landowners holding a tough hand for the past century, Sparks says. In particular, a severely altered hydrology has taken a toll. 'Today, these forests are in severe decline," says Sparks, who insists that landowners across coastal Louisiana remain at the mercy of the needs of the masses without any rewards for the service they provide.

Dan Favre, campaign organizer of the Gulf Restoration Network, agrees. 'We need conservation easements and programs for landowners to keep cypress forests intact," says Favre. Like Sparks, Favre says coastal forests provide flood protection for the rest of the state. 'It's reasonable that people are paid for that," Favre says.

Some relief for landowners may be in sight. The state is set to spend $18.8 million to protect coastal forests during the next four years through the Coastal Impact Assistance Plan (CIAP). Greg Grandy, project manager at the state Department of Natural Resources, says the DNR is reviewing several coastal restoration models to see what works. The DNR has not yet written rules for grant applicants, but the agency hopes to do so soon. Money alone won't solve the problem, but it will help.

Landowners like Sparks have much to lose. He notes that many stakeholders and special interest groups are vying for land rights, and all the while Louisiana is washing out to sea. Sparks' biggest concern is that coastal Louisiana may already be past the 'tipping point."

Consumers and gardening experts remain one of the strongest forces in the movement to save cypress forests. Their overwhelming response to the mulch industry has been two green thumbs down.

Steve Murphy, owner and operator of Sun Rise Trading Co., a wholesale nursery in Kenner, has seen a lot of changes over the past 35 years. He remembers when cypress mulch was a different product.

'Years and years ago, we had a light, feathery bark that was the mulch. Nowadays we get cypress wood chips in the mulch. Cypress has no biological actions," Murphy says. 'It's going to remain from fall to spring and end up as a huge mat that you have to scrape out of your garden. It's a lot of work."

Veteran lawn man Tom Mayo agrees. 'Cypress mulch is the least beneficial mulch," Mayo says, adding that he takes a more holistic approach to gardening and mulch. 'You need to understand the basics. Plants are originally from an environment that has balance. Then they come to the gardener and he tries to recreate that balance, which is almost impossible in a garden because most people are making gardens, not habitat. Cypress mulch creates an inhospitable garden environment. People are doing it because it's cheap."

Mayo prefers to treat a garden as an ecosystem.

'If you want to get the plant into a thriving situation, you have to create an environment that feeds itself. Cypress mulch smothers the ground. It does not breathe or break down into healthy topsoil. Pine bark and pine needles break down after about four months. With cypress you have to rake it out and start over."

When asked what he uses to retain moisture and prevent weeds in his garden, Mayo's reply is a simple recipe: 'I've got two trees in my yard " an oak and a pine. They both drop leaves, and I rake them into my garden."

As Wilson campaigns to create awareness about the cypress mulch industry, he knows his work is just one piece of a much larger puzzle that includes landowners and timber industry officials. He says he plans to work in conjunction with Sparks and others in the near future.

The good news, Wilson says, is that coastal Louisiana has not yet seen or felt the full potential of the cypress mulch industry

"We need conservation easements and programs for landowners to keep cypress forests intact. It's reasonable that people are paid for that." Dan Favre, campaign organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network - TERRI FENSEL
  • Terri Fensel
  • "We need conservation easements and programs for landowners to keep cypress forests intact. It's reasonable that people are paid for that."

    Dan Favre, campaign organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network
In cypress forests that are clear-cut (top is before the cut in 2005, below is after), it is typical for the cypresses not to grow back but for trees like Chinese Tallows and willows to become dominant, says environmentalist and cypress watchdog Dean Wilson. - DEAN WILSON
  • Dean Wilson
  • In cypress forests that are clear-cut (top is before the cut in 2005, below is after), it is typical for the cypresses not to grow back but for trees like Chinese Tallows and willows to become dominant, says environmentalist and cypress watchdog Dean Wilson.

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