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The Forgotten Forests

Louisiana's coastal wetland forests are hard to define, but they could be easy to lose if timber and environmental interests don't resolve some fundamental differences.

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For almost a decade, environmentalists have campaigned against Louisiana's cypress mulch industry, claiming it has harmed the state's coastal wetland forests. Voices from all sides of the issue have chimed in over the years, but still there is widespread disagreement on matters of science as well as public policy. The debate is often heated, but when the emotions are removed, what remains is a dialogue about the iconic but inscrutable coastal forests themselves.

Louisiana's state tree and its habitat demand more clarity, but achieving that goal is about as easy as navigating a dense cypress swamp by moonlight.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco appointed a commission known as the Coastal Wetland Forest Conservation Science Working Group (SWG) to analyze the threats to Louisiana's coastal wetland forests and to recommend ways to address those threats. The SWG issued its final report in 2005, but so far none of its substantive recommendations has been implemented. Meanwhile, several of the group's 42 members, advisors and others have continued their research; they have forwarded recommendations to Blanco and to Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal, hoping that either or both governors will make saving the forests part of their legacies.

'We're still pushing," says SWG chair Jim Chambers. 'There's a lot of missing data and misinformation out there. Hopefully we'll be seeing a lot more concrete kinds of things in the near future."

Specifically, Chambers hopes to see progress on three fronts:

Maps that define the borders of 'unsustainable" coastal wetland forests.

Techniques for identifying regeneration conditions in the field.

Development of Coastal Forest Practice Guidelines that would replace the so-called 'best management practices" currently used by the timber industry and state regulators.

Chambers has found support in many quarters, but the politically influential Louisiana Forestry Association (LFA), which includes landowners, loggers and members of the timber industry, does not embrace the goals to the same extent as Chambers and the SWG. According to LFA executive director Buck Vandersteen, who served on an advisory panel to the SWG, the definition of unsustainable forests should be limited to those areas affected by salt-water intrusion and subsidence.

In effect, it comes down to where the lines are drawn and how Louisiana defines 'unsustainable." Chambers and the SWG would include vast areas in their definition of 'unsustainable" coastal wetland forests, and thereby restrict permitted logging activities significantly. The LFA, on the other hand, would define 'unsustainable" in terms that maximize the timber industry's ability to harvest cypress and other coastal trees.

The LFA also rejects the notion of replacing the current 'best management practices," or BMPs, with Coastal Forest Practice Guidelines. 'Our forests are being managed under the best forest sustainability practices in the country," says Vandersteen.

Critics of the state's BMPs say they were designed to reduce forest soil erosion and to protect Louisiana's water quality, not to sustain coastal forests. 'Those are strictly for water quality. They don't do anything else," says Chambers.

Louisiana's coastal wetland forests were first logged " clear cut " of their cypress in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Up to 80 percent of the state's second growth baldcypress lies in Southern Louisiana swamps that can't re-grow, according to the SWG's 2005 report.

The report relies in part on data from the U.S. Forest Service. While the Forest Service data is incomplete and sometimes disputed, it shows essentially no change in total area covered by cypress-tupelo forests from 1991 to 2003. The report also concludes that little additional wood volume is accumulating and that stand densities are low. The evidence suggests that environmental stresses are suppressing stand growth, according to the SWG.

Using the volume of baldcypress over the entire state as an index for growth in the coastal region, the SWG claims that cypress growth rates have essentially ceased since 1980. However, the SWG report acknowledges that more information is needed because 'the data are not well suited for making precise statements about geographical differences in the status of baldcypress forests within the coastal region."

Two of the most important voices in the ongoing debate are those of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) " the state and federal regulators, respectively. Their statements support the conclusion that more information is needed to accurately assess the state of Louisiana's coastal wetland forests.

LDAF officials say they have been 'cooperating with the U.S. Forest Service in Forest Inventory & Analysis (FIA) for years." In a prepared statement, LDAF officials claim that the USFS inventory and analysis process, which is required to be updated regularly under federal law, has produced extensive data on baldcypress and forest conditions dating back to the 1940s. 'At this time we are collecting aerial data," LDAF officials say, adding that they are working on a process for 'ground-truthing," or on-site verification of species identified via aerial inspections. That process will not be easy, because many coastal wetland forests remain flooded year-round.

For its part, the USFS has recently had to revamp LDAF data pertaining to coastal wetland forests. Many of the coastal wetland forest plots were labeled 'hazardous" and no data was available. The USFS says that in several cases, LDAF crews were doing 'drive-by cruises."

Bill Burkman, project leader for Forest Inventory and Analysis at the USFS Southern Research Station, says the data that he has seen in Louisiana has made coastal wetland forests 'one of our bigger concerns."

'Many of the plots we had concerns with were flood plains and bottomland forests," Burkman says. 'There are issues with putting crews out there when they can't touch bottom. It's possible we didn't measure many of the plots because of water levels."

Burkman adds that in the process of completing a five-year cycle of analysis for all forests in Louisiana in 2007, the USFS identified plots that had problems and fixed as many of them as it could, setting a protocol for future updates.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, fear that state regulators at LDAF are too closely tied to the timber and logging industries. In the court of public opinion, however, environmentalists have won some key corporate support, which they hope will translate into pro-environmental policies at the state level.

One of the main battle lines is the production of cypress mulch.

Aaron Viles, spokesman for the Gulf Restoration Network and a member of the Save Our Cypress Coalition, says the group has been fighting the mulch industry in hopes of preserving Louisiana's 'last barrier" against hurricanes, its coastal trees and the rich and diverse habitat that thrives among contiguous stands of old baldcypress.

'Scientists at LSU will tell you that cypress provide a tremendous hurricane barrier," Viles says. 'With a $50 billion fix on the table for coastal Louisiana, it only makes sense to protect the cypress that remains. It makes the Army Corps' job vastly easier and cheaper."

That said, environmental factors remain the greatest threat to cypress. Still, the Coalition fears the potential threat of the mulch market and is working to keep it at bay.

Until recently, there was very little interest in a second cypress harvest. Then, starting in the 1990s, consumer demand for cypress mulch and furniture made from native Louisiana cypress made large-scale cypress harvesting profitable again. The big push to log cypress started when loggers and landowners realized that if they had 1,000 trees and only 100 were large enough to turn into board lumber " but 900 could be made into mulch " then it would be worth the high cost of building roads into the swamp and bringing in logging and hauling equipment.

But Louisiana's timber industry also has a concern for the forest.

Frank Vallot, co-owner of Louisiana State Cypress, opened a sawmill in Roseland (in Tangipahoa Parish) in 2005. Last year up to 25 percent of his company's revenue came from mulch, Vallot says. His company's cypress mulch has been sold at Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's. Vallot is also the CEO of Acadian Hardwoods, a distributor of many species of board lumber " including cypress " with retail outlets in four states.

Environmentalists convinced Wal-Mart to stop selling cypress mulch produced in Louisiana, and some have accused Vallot of processing whole trees for mulch, a practice that is legal in Louisiana. Vallot denies that he turns whole trees into mulch. He says he mills every inch of cypress logs that he can into board lumber and then uses only by-product to produce cypress mulch.

Vallot, whose Roseland sawmill currently employs 29 people, says that he has had to lay off employees in part because of the mulch controversy. He says he hopes that coastal Louisiana will re-open to cypress logging, contingent upon a site-by-site analysis of the trees.

In recent weeks, Vallot based a mulch give-away campaign on his belief that the big box stores and consumers should be more supportive of the mulch industry. Otherwise, he says, he'll have to sell his by-product as a fuel source. 'How environmental is that?" Vallot asks.

Vallot's Louisiana State Cypress brand mulch bears a label that environmentalists would like to see qualified. Presently there are no third-party certification programs or standards for terms like 'environmentally harvested," a claim that Vallot's cypress mulch carries. He says he only harvests cypress from 'sustainable" forests.

'Tracking where trees come from in the mulching process is an excellent idea," says Chambers. 'Until we have the maps to where sustainable forests lie, we can't do the certification."

In a retail industry-leading move, Wal-Mart announced that, starting Jan. 1, it will no longer sell cypress mulch from anywhere in Louisiana until a certification program is up and running. Other big box stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's are waiting for more information from Louisiana officials before they buy any more cypress mulch from trees harvested below the I-10 and I-12 corridors.

Vallot is part of the Southern Cypress Manufactures Association, an alliance formed by cypress producers from Louisiana and other states. At present, he is the only Louisiana member of the association who produces mulch.

Roy O. Martin Lumber Co., based in Alexandria, also belongs to the association. While the company, founded in 1923, does not produce mulch, it does convert its sawmill byproduct to a fuel source. Roy O. Martin's chief operating officer, Scott Poole, says that the cypress mulch issue is not rooted in fair science. 'It's a mosaic issue," says Poole, a graduate forester with an M.B.A. 'But the scientific evidence is being distorted." Poole says environmentalists are using scientific evidence from selected regions to provide blanket statements for the entire state.

In a state that loses an estimated 15,300 acres of land per year to the Gulf of Mexico, coastal landowners are anxious for relief. The cypress mulch issue may fuel a push for grants that could be awarded to landowners who preserve their cypress stands. Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed approximately 200 square miles of Louisiana's coast, also has brought more urgency to the issue.

Greg Grandy, project manager at the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), says help is on the way. 'We can't say exactly when, but we're making tremendous progress," Grandy says of the grant idea.

The DNR grant team, responsible for writing the rules for $18.8 million that has been set aside to protect the coast through the Coastal Impact Assistance Plan, has been reviewing research compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA researchers, having seen Katrina's devastating impact on the coast, have studied land easements and acquisitions in 31 other coastal states.

'We chose coastal states because of the cypress trees, the coastal swamps the DNR was looking to conserve," says Maureen Tooke, one of the researchers. 'We researched forest conservation programs based on what the DNR was looking for " how to better map their forests, have them in a database, be able to manipulate that data, know if it's a species' habitat, know if it's a forest you don't want to have fragmented, for example."

Tooke says there is no 'silver bullet" that could resolve the cypress controversy, but Louisiana may be able to borrow from several other states in its search for answers.

Dr. Rex Caffey, director of the Center for Natural Resource Economics and Policy at the LSU AgCenter, also has studied ways to preserve a rapidly disappearing coast. 'One of the things we suggest is that there are some amenities on private lands that benefit the public," Caffey says. 'To any extent that private amenities produce off-site public benefit then we should entertain the idea of preserving them for public benefit. We do it all the time through the Farm Bill."

Caffey's work includes a review of the struggles that coastal landowners endure and the logistics as well as the economics of balancing their individual rights against the perceived public good. In an interview, he reflected on what he has learned: 'You can't force someone to restore their land. We perceive cypress to provide a benefit to the public. Maybe in the long run it's better to look at the fair market value rather than create all new law, which becomes a taking issue."

Caffey weighs the historical evidence on 'taking" issues.

'Look at the examples of the Davis Pond Oyster leases, where they bought everybody out, and the Caernarvon Diversion project, where we went to court for 12 years. Historical indication is that it's probably cheaper to provide a compensation than a regulatory stick to those landowners."

Compensation to landowners has at least some appeal to the timber industry as well. 'We have supported, and continue to support, conservation easements when they have benefits for the landowner and meet the program objectives," says the LFA's Vandersteen.

Caffey says Louisiana's coastal cypress were once a no-man's land between salt-water marshes and inland forests. Now, he says, it's time to take a closer look at these hard-to-define spaces. 'A lot of cypress, even conservative foresters will tell you, is doomed. They're not sustainable," he says.

Dr. Mike Dunn, a resource economist with a degree in forestry, agrees that coastal wetland forests are an ill-studied ecosystem. 'It gets forgotten between things that happen in urban areas and the wetlands that we all know and are familiar with. Then there's the forest. It's not just economics. It's the biology and all the science involved with it that we need to know more about."

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