Unlikely Ally in Fight to Save La.'s Cypress Trees

The only thing stopping chainsaws from cutting down cypress trees in Louisiana is the Army Corps of Engineers. It's not a desire to save the trees that is motivating it, but rather concerns about the roads that are built to reach them. The second of two reports.

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In southern Louisiana, property owners have hit an impasse over their plans to log cypress. Environmentalists say the swamps where the trees grow are too fragile to survive clear-cutting. Still, it's not environmental issues that have silenced the chain saws. It's the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps isn't worried about the trees; it's worried about the roads built to reach them. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has this second of two reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

To understand the conflict, we head down to Livingston Parish, Louisiana. Two state foresters lead us to a spot that was logged about a year ago.

Mr. PAUL FREY (Louisiana State Forester): Hopefully we won't encounter anything we don't--any unfriendlies in the way of reptiles.

SHOGREN: Paul Frey swats at the brush with a long stick as we balance on a series of felled trees. Loggers put them here as a makeshift road that stretches a mile into the swamp. Forester Toni Debosier explains why.

Ms. TONI DEBOSIER (Louisiana State Forester): They'll actually cut the trees, lay them on the ground so that the equipment can run over the trees and not dig deep ruts into the ground.

SHOGREN: During the tour, Debosier gets a call on her cell phone from one of the loggers.

Ms. DEBOSIER: (Speaking on the phone) Matter of fact, if you want to hang on, I'll call the corps right now.

SHOGREN: He's a local and he wants to know if he can return to Louisiana and cut cypress.

Ms. DEBOSIER: I'll try to get an answer for you and I'll call you right back.

SHOGREN: Later, we reach the logger, George Croon(ph) by phone.

Mr. GEORGE CROON (Logger): (On the phone) I've been in Georgia and South Carolina, all up and down the East Coast because I haven't been allowed to make a living off my own land.

SHOGREN: He blames the federal government for his problem.

Mr. CROON: Been trying to cut this timber for a long time and the Corps of Engineers keeps shutting us down.

SHOGREN: The corps' complaint is not with the actual logging, but with the log roads that Croon and others build to reach trees deep in the swamp. The roads are supposed to limit environmental damage and the corps says they can't be built without permits. The 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act gives the corps authority to regulate structures built in navigable waters, and for decades, the agency has interpreted that to mean everything up to the high-water mark of a river, bay or lake. That includes cypress swamps, where the corps has stopped five logging projects. State forester Paul Frey thinks the agency is overreaching.

Mr. FREY: You have to be awfully imaginative to think that you can navigate any of these properties. It's hard for me to understand how on a piece of private property where there's no opportunity for the public to access by boat that the issue of navigation would even come up.

SHOGREN: The local timber industry asked Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter to stop the corps. He attached an amendment to a bill in Congress to do just that.

Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): I've spent a lot of time looking at the law, and I've become convinced that the corps' interpretation is completely out of bounds. By their new definitions and applications, I'm going to need a Corps of Engineers' permit to put my kids' trampoline in my back yard.

Mr. MARK SUDOL (Army Corps of Engineers): We are not going to go down the road of looking at very small structures, in back yards, especially.

SHOGREN: Mark Sudol is the corps' regulatory chief in Washington.

Mr. SUDOL: We're looking at larger structures. These roads, you've seen them. They're hundreds of feet long, they're multiple logs of multiple sizes.

SHOGREN: Corps officials stress that the landowners probably would get permits if they applied for them, but it could take a lot of time and money. The corps officials refuse to comment on Vitter's amendment, but environmentalists in Louisiana and Washington say its impact could reach far beyond Louisiana. Joan Mulhern is a lawyer for Earthjustice.

Ms. JOAN MULHERN (Earthjustice): We're talking about a lot of activities and a lot of waters that could be threatened.

SHOGREN: Potentially, power lines could be erected in a shallow section of the Columbia River. A restaurant on stilts built in marshes beside Lake Michigan or a radio tower set up in a wetland in the flight path of a military air base.

Ms. MULHERN: Wherever there's a private property interest under the Vitter amendment, the Corps of Engineers would have its hands tied and couldn't act to prevent activities that would threaten water quality or flood control or the other benefits that those natural wetlands currently provide.

SHOGREN: Nor could they weigh public security interests or transportation concerns. It might also mean loggers in Louisiana could begin cutting countless acres of cypress trees. Ironically, the same bill that would remove this last obstacle to logging those cypress forests also authorizes $2 billion to restore the coastal areas where the trees now grow, and it is Senator Vitter who wrote both of those provisions. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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