Too much water causes cypress problem
By Melanie Torbett
A lot of public noise has been generated lately about Louisiana’s wetland forests – that landowners are chopping down irreplaceable, centuries-old cypress trees and grinding them up into garden mulch, speeding up, if not actually causing, the state’s coastal erosion problem and making it easier for hurricanes to devastate the region.
The trouble is, headlines don’t always tell the whole story. Coastal erosion and the loss of cypress swamps do intersect, but not in the way one might think, says one industry official.
“Cypress mulch registers about a .005 on a scale of 1 to 10,” as a factor in coastal erosion in Louisiana, said Rudy Sparks, vice president of Williams, Inc., which owns thousands of acres of swampland in south Louisiana.
His company is not cutting cypress trees and hasn’t harvested any in years. They can’t. The dramatically - changed waterscape of much of south Louisiana has effectively rendered their acreage unfit for growing trees.
It’s not news that the natural hydrology of Louisiana’s swamps has been disrupted over the years by the construction of flood control and forced drainage projects, canals and navigation channels, as well as some naturally-occurring forces. Tremendous acreage that once had seasonal wet and dry spells is now permanently flooded with either fresh or salt water. Land along the coast is sinking and Gulf waters are rising.
The reality for a long time is that cypress trees in the region are being drowned, not cut down.
“Today there is only a small area of merchantable timberland inside the Atchafalya Basin once you get south of I-10. We’ve lost most of our forests in this part of the state,” said Sparks, whose company is one of the large landowners most affected by the coastal erosion drama that continues to unfold.
Landowners like Williams, Inc. have resource-rich lands that in the past produced great profits from timber and oil and gas production and provided excellent habitat for fish, and wildlife. Yet, their assets are threatened by the rapid deterioration of the region’s natural ecosystem.
Williams, Inc. owns 70,000 acres of cypress-tupelo swampland in 13 parishes that stretch across the southern part of the state. Continuing to maintain offices in the St. Mary Parish town of Patterson and in New Orleans, this family-owned enterprise was a huge player in the late 19th century-early 20th century cypress lumbering boom, at one time operating what was reputed to be the largest cypress sawmill in the world in Patterson. Its economic lifeblood for decades, however, has been oil and gas production.
A combination of factors – mostly involving the radically - altered waterscape in this part of Louisiana – has made Williams’ land unsuitable for growing trees, explained Sparks. Regeneration of cypress has been generally unsuccessful, and existing trees continue to die.
“We have been dealt a pretty tough hand,” said Sparks, who is also a forester. “We have all this swampland that is now not suitable for growing stands of trees. And it’s not very productive for wildlife habitat either.”
“In the 27 or 28 years since I’ve been here, I’ve conducted one timber harvest – and that was on 50 acres that produced $18,000 in income. That’s been the sole timber income on 60,000 acres.”
History tells us that from about the late 1880s to 1930, almost all the virgin cypress timber in south Louisiana was harvested. There was successful natural regeneration of cypress and water tupelo in this area in the 1920s, but in subsequent decades, big public works projects and natural subsidence began to alter the flow, water levels and salinity of Louisiana’s rivers, bayous and swamps. Changes made to the natural land and water systems began affecting the ability of the land to sustain healthy stands of trees.
“From I-10 southward, we have drowned the whole area,” asserted Sparks. “Today we have dead and dying, stagnated swamps.”
Thus, for the last several decades, there has been little cypress harvesting in these parts.
“We have not sold $50,000 worth of timber in the last 40 years,” Sparks said. “The other major landowners in the area are in pretty much the same shape. We’ve got a real problem, and very few people understand it.”
And he contends the future looks bleak. “There’s nothing in the future. The timber component has been taken out of these properties. We have had 75 years of lost productivity.”
There continues to be efforts to regain ground, so to speak, in the fight to save Louisiana’s coastal lands. Wetland forest management has been recognized as a critical component of the issue.
Sparks served on the Advisory Panel to the Coastal Wetland Forest Conservation and Use Science Working Group that recently submitted recommendations to Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. That report is slated to go to state lawmakers for consideration during the current legislative session. (The Science Working Group also submitted a report to the Governor in 2005.)
The advisory panel’s recommendations call for such measures as helping landowners manage their wetland forest acreage, delaying harvests, identifying and classifying forests according to their suitability for regeneration, developing criteria for prioritizing restoration and conservation projects, and dedicating state funding for the efforts.
But Sparks is concerned that while such measures may be helpful, they won’t result in any dramatic improvement to the health of wetland forests in south Louisiana. The state must address the inundation of the forests, he contends.
He pointed out that since the 1930s, there has been “extended devastation because of siltation and backwater flooding in the Atchafalaya Basin.” In the Lake Verret Basin, he said, changes to the natural drainage patterns have also raised water levels, killing trees along bayous and sloughs in the past two to three decades.
“I challenge anyone to find a living live oak tree in the lower Atchafalaya Basin today,” asserted Sparks. “Most died 30 to 40 years ago. We have lost all the hardwood ridges that used to line the bayous.”
“The hardwood forests began to die in the 1970s, then the tupelo and cypress began dying in the 1980s,” said Sparks. “In the lower part of the Atchafalaya, nearly all the old residual cypress died – old growth, relic trees that were 800 to 2,000 years old.”
“It has been a free fall,” Sparks said. “The 1973 high water was the tipping point.”
He points to maps of the Atchafalaya Basin that illustrate where water has permanently inundated timber areas, especially in St. Martin, Iberia, St. Mary and Iberville Parishes.
In 2002, the Louisiana Landowners Association issued a position paper, “Coastal Restoration in Louisiana: Striving for a Higher Level,” which Sparks believes puts forth a plan that really addresses the forest inundation problem. That group is a private organization of 250 individuals and corporations that collectively own about 3.5 million acres of land in Louisiana’s coastal region.
Though the group recommends multiple strategies for coastal restoration, its report zeros in on the importance of using the full sediment-carrying flow of the Mississippi River to rebuild Louisiana’s coast and flush out the natural system.
Making changes that would restore some of the natural freshwater flow patterns of the Mississippi River-Atchafalaya River system would definitely help rebuild landmass that could support a productive bottomland hardwood forest, said Sparks. “We need to use a third conveyance channel to emulate what Bayou Lafourche once did, to bring water into the Barataria Basin and toggle water back and forth between the Atchafalaya and Barataria Basins.”
He acknowledges, echoing the conclusions of the landowners’ report, “There is no way to draw up a plan that will restore the historic hydrologic patterns.”
And Sparks is not optimistic that a comprehensive, sustainable restoration plan can get the necessary public and private support to reverse the phenomenon. “There’s an opportunity to do good things, but there are too many stakeholders to satisfy.” These stakeholders include a diversity of interested parties, from shrimpers, fishermen and trappers to landowners, oil and gas producers, developers and environmentalists.
“We have the plans, and have had them for 20 years,” said Sparks. “But we’re chasing all the wrong issues.”
Melanie Torbett is a writer and forest landowner in Alexandria who has been covering the cypress issue for Forests & People magazine.