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The Forest for the Trees

If Louisianians aren't united, decision makers in Washington may be less willing to take on the national crisis of coastal erosion.

A dispute over Louisiana's cypress logging practices has resulted in what can only be called a failure to see the forest for the trees ("Log Jam," June 21). The problem is that the parties involved -- coastal restoration advocacy groups, landowners, politicians and the logging industry -- have yet to have one productive dialogue on how best to approach the issue. Even groups within those groups have disagreed with one another, so it's no surprise that discussions between the disparate interests have degenerated into finger pointing, name calling and resentment.

Meanwhile, the state seeks billions of federal dollars for coastal restoration projects, correctly portraying Louisiana's rapidly eroding coastline as a national emergency. Our concern is that if Louisianians aren't united, decision makers in Washington will be unwilling to open the government's already tight pocketbook to solve the bigger problem of coastal erosion.

One potential solution is the proposed Coastal Forest Reserve Act, an idea pitched by the Louisiana Wildlife Federation last year. The program would mirror the federal Conservation and Wetlands Reserve Programs, which award incentives to landowners who agree to maintain their property in a way that best protects, restores or improves wetlands. These programs apply to agricultural lands; a separate plan would have to be established for coastal forest properties. "The landowner has a real strong case in this," says Randy Lanctot, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation. "If you don't want the tree down and it's not your tree, you've got to come up with a way to make the owner of the tree a better offer."

Lanctot has proposed funding such a program, at least in part, with federal money from the so-called Breaux Act (Coastal Wetlands Planning Protection and Restoration Act), which has awarded Louisiana $33 million to $44 million a year since 1991 to restore and protect our coast. Last year, state Sen. Nick Gautreaux, D-Abbeville, sponsored a resolution urging establishment of the Coastal Forest Reserve Act. The full Legislature endorsed the proposal, but it went nowhere. Lanctot admits the forces behind the resolution, including his own organization, didn't give it the attention it needed to achieve success in Congress, and therefore it languished.

Meanwhile, the fiercest logging debate centers on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' use of Section 10 of the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act to oversee coastal logging operations. Section 10 gives the Corps oversight of structures built in navigable waterways. The agency uses Section 10 to require permits for loggers who lay down rows of trees to bring their equipment into wetland forests. Landowners and the logging industry complain that the Corps oversteps its bounds, in some cases regulating areas not logically considered navigable. This year, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., jumped into the fray. On one hand, Vitter pushed for coastal restoration funding under the federal Water Resources Development Act, which requests nearly $2 billion for Louisiana. On the other hand, Vitter, a self-described friend of the logging industry, attached an amendment that would severely limit the Corps' ability to use Section 10 against private landowners. A similar effort on the state level came this year in the form of SCR 71, a resolution by state Sen. Mike Smith, asking Congress to curb the Corps' authority over logging operations. Some coastal restoration groups are blasting Vitter and Smith, saying Louisiana lawmakers who show a perceived resistance to preserving coastal lands could hurt the state's chances of getting any money at all from Washington. At the same time, some environmentalists acknowledge that all coastal harvesting doesn't necessarily jeopardize wetlands -- and that certain types of harvesting could actually help.

Lanctot says the Wildlife Federation wants to "strategically identify" forests that are important to coastal restoration. Lanctot believes the proposed Coastal Forest Reserve Act could quell much of the friction over Section 10. "If your land is a wetland, you can get the full value of the property and still keep it for other revenue producers -- whether it be hunting leases, your own enjoyment, etc. -- in exchange for a perpetual easement that you sell to the government," Lanctot says. "This needs to be emphasized. We understand that these (lands) are privately owned, and the private owners expect to get the value of their resources. So it's up to us to negotiate a fair agreement with the owners. It can all be done."

It sounds almost too simple, but the simplest solutions are often the ones most overlooked. We urge coastal restoration groups, coastal landowners and Louisiana politicians to make the Coastal Forest Reserve Act a priority. This would be a small but important step in bringing all parties to the table to ensure that Louisiana's cypress forests continue to protect our coastline and provide a source of revenue for those who agree to harvest responsibly. Most of all, Louisiana must put forth a united front for the bigger fight: protecting our state's fragile coastline.

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