08/01/2012 05:31 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Loggers, Suppliers Threaten Louisiana's Cypress Groves

You may have heard that you shouldn't buy Louisiana cypress mulch because those difficult-to-replace trees are needed for marsh preservation and bird habit. Conservationists worry that cypress logging occurs in areas where it's illegal and that Louisiana mulch is disguised and sold as coming from other states. On a different tack, the Louisiana Forestry Association believes if we buy cypress products, landowners will do the right thing and plant more trees.

Three of the nation's big retailers say they don't sell south Louisiana cypress mulch.

Sonja Oswalt, analyst with the U.S. Dept of Agriculture's Forest Service Station in Knoxville, Tenn., said Louisiana's cypress groves have a tougher time recovering or regenerating after logging now than once did. "Flood control efforts with levees and channelization, along with development of infrastructure -- including roads -- have disrupted the natural cycle of floodwaters to and from the floodplain," she said last week. "A disconnection of rivers from floodplains in many cases has led to stagnation of flood waters and has permanently flooded forests." She said cypress can't regenerate in permanent flooding. Those are her own views and not necessarily the Forest Service's position.

Oswalt said logging, if done properly, can benefit forests by removing older, decaying stands. "But if logging occurs in cypress forests without a plan for regenerating the stand, problems can arise because of altered hydrology."

Phyllis Darensbourg, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Dept. of Natural Resources, said "cypress logging on state-owned lands or waterbottoms requires a lease from the State Land Office." Waterbottoms include bayous, marshes and streams. The state doesn't regulate any logging on private lands, she said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires loggers to have permits in certain circumstances. Under the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act, the Army Corps regulates logging in and around navigable waterways controlled by the United States.

Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association, said "Army Corps permits are required if activity causes impediments to navigation." But he added "it isn't always necessary to get a permit from the Corps since federal and state forestry guidelines recommend zones of limited harvesting along banks in Stream Side Management Zones." Selective harvesting is allowed in SMZs or buffer strips along streams to promote water quality and aquatic habitat.

At Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy, a group promoting stewardship of old-growth cypress trees, founder and coordinator Harvey Stern said "illegal harvesting of south Louisiana's cypress for mulch, breaking state and Army Corps rules, has been documented by the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper with photographs from airplane flyovers of mulching mills around clear-cut areas." The Atchafalaya Basinkeeper is a nonprofit group.

Stern continued "it's been documented that cypress has been logged in south Louisiana wetlands without the required Army Corps of Engineers 404 permits that are needed whenever dredge and filling occurs for access roads to logged areas."

Buck Vandersteen, however, doesn't think illegal logging is a problem in Louisiana. "Any complaints about logging are investigated by proper authorities and corrective action is taken," he said. And when asked, he couldn't recall any investigations into illegal cypress logging in the state over the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, conservationists are worried about the retail side. Stern said "it's been documented that Corbitt Manufacturing and other companies have marketed south Louisiana cypress mulch as originating from other states." Corbitt, based in Florida with operations in Louisiana, is in liquidation now, and some of its assets, equipment and inventory were purchased by Oldcastle Lawn & Garden, Inc. in Georgia last month.

In Baton Rouge, Dean Wilson, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and chair of the Atchafalaya Basin Committee at the Sierra Club, said Corbitt Manufacturing made "No Float" cypress mulch upstate in Monroe, La., and the product's packaging had a Florida address. He said Corbitt sold "No Float" mulch produced upstate to Walmart in violation of the retailer's moratorium on selling Louisiana cypress mulch. Wilson said he'd seen Corbitt's "No Float" product in Walmart stores many times.

But Walmart spokeswoman Ashley Hardie said last week "Walmart does not sell 'No Float' cypress mulch."

She said "Walmart remains committed to helping to develop a continuous supply of sustainable wood sources and conserve the global, forest-resource base. We've taken a strong position with suppliers by informing them in writing that we will not accept or purchase products made with cypress mulch sources from unsustainable forests in coastal Louisiana." She said Walmart requires suppliers to substantiate their sourcing locations.

Hardie declined to comment on Walmart's policy, effective in January 2008, that it would no longer sell cypress mulch from anywhere in Louisiana, not just coastal areas.

Wilson said he'd heard reports, though he hadn't personally confirmed them, that a plant in Port Allen in West Baton Rouge Parish has sold mulch to at least one, if not two, of the big U.S. retailers that have promised not to buy coastal Louisiana cypress mulch. Port Allen is more than 100 miles from the southern coast, however, and is just above Interstates 10 and 12.

In 2007, The Home Depot decided not to buy or sell cypress mulch from coastal Louisiana. "Our policy is that we won't accept cypress mulch harvested in Louisiana south of Interstates 10 and 12," said Stephen Holmes, Atlanta-based spokesman for The Home Depot. The company requires written confirmation to that effect from its suppliers. "If a supplier were to market the mulch as being from another state, that would be a violation of our policy," Holmes said.

Since July 2007, Lowe's has had a sourcing moratorium on cypress products from south of I-10 and I-12 in Louisiana, according to Karen Cobb, North Carolina-based spokeswoman for Lowe's Companies.

Conservationists said another cypress mulch product, called "FloridaGold," was made by Corbitt and believed to have been mostly from Louisiana, but packaged as being from the Sunshine State. The Home Depot does not sell "FloridaGold," Holmes said.

And "FloridaGold" won't be around much longer. Keith Haas, CEO of Oldcastle Building Products, parent of Oldcastle Lawn & Garden, said "we have no plans to use the name 'Florida Gold' for any products other than the inventory we have left to liquidate from Corbitt."

What about other items made from cypress, including furniture, swing seats, building materials and caskets? Vandersteen said "retail stores I'm familiar with sell cypress products. Cypress is a renewable, forest product that makes beautiful lumber and a host of byproducts."

At St. Joseph's Abbey in Covington, La., cypress casket production, launched in 2007, has grown, said Mark Coudrain, a deacon there. "Our customers have never asked where the cypress comes from," he said. He isn't sure of the wood's origins either but knows it arrives from several Louisiana suppliers. The abbey expects to produce over 200 cypress caskets this year.

The best way to encourage landowners to care for their cypress trees is to give them markets, Vandersteen said. "New trees are always planted to replace those taken out so the cypress resource is sustainable," he said.

Vandersteen said "it's okay for private landowners to harvest cypress or any tree on their property. Landowners usually seek advice from state foresters and private practice foresters." He said harvesters follow Louisiana's Recommended Guide to Best Management Practices, compiled by the state's Dept. of Environmental Quality, Dept. of Agriculture and Forestry, the Louisiana State University AgCenter and the Louisiana Forestry Association.

Malcolm Sibley, Southeast chapter chairman of the Louisiana Logging Council, said the state's most-continuous cypress area is in the Atchafalaya Basin. In southeast Louisiana, the largest swathes are the Manchac-Maurepas and St. John the Baptist Parish swamp areas.

The state's Dept. of Natural Resources is finalizing an agreement to protect cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin, Darensbourg said. On July 13, DNR Secretary Scott Angelle announced that details were being hammered out with the St. Martin Parish School Board to protect 640 acres of cypress and bottom land hardwood, controlled by the school board south of I-10. The board will be compensated for a prohibition on logging there.

Louisiana's cypress-tupelo forest area appears to have expanded slightly from 2005 to 2010 though the increase may not have been statistically significant, Oswalt said. "As for timber production, Louisiana accounts for a fairly large percent of the South's cypress volume but for very little of the total cypress utilized for timber products," she said. Most Southern U.S. cypress products come from Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Louisiana cypress-tupelo area available for wood this year is estimated at 892,938 acres, she said.

Stern said "patches of old-growth cypress in all corners of our state rival the California redwoods in their endurance." Under the right conditions, cypress trees can survive for centuries. "As Louisiana's state tree, the bald cypress is a living symbol of our natural heritage," he said, and added that efforts to protect cypress should be extended beyond the coast and across the state.

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the July 30, 2012 edition.