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There's a treasure lying in the sleepy swamps of Louisiana. It's been a century since commercially prized cypress trees have been big enough to cut and now's the time. The question is whether this could be the last time. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has the first of two stories.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Everyone seems to agree that cypress is something special. The wood from the trees is valued for its beauty and its resistance to rot and insects. Frank Valleau(ph) built a new sawmill in anticipation of the big cypress harvest and hopes to supply a market hungry for everything from cypress shingles and lawn furniture to cabinets and mulch.

Mr. FRANK VALLEAU (Sawmill Owner): Cypress has a rich, even color. Frank Lloyd Wright would use cypress in a lot of his houses.

SHOGREN: Valleau caresses a board as he pulls it from a stack.

Mr. VALLEAU: Look at this board. You can just see the character. It tells a little story. It's a beautiful piece of wood.

(Soundbite of back-up beeper; boat engine)

SHOGREN: Ecology Professor Gary Shaffer loves cypress, too, but from a different perspective. As he pilots a flat-bottom boat through murky swamp water, he points to the trees. Their trunks flare near the base and slim as they rise 75 to a hundred feet toward the sky. Their branches stretch broadly into lush, cone-shaped canopies.

Professor GARY SHAFFER (Ecology Professor): The cypress are the majestic-looking ones. There are very few species on planet Earth that can handle this amount of flooding. They have an average of maybe a foot or so of water on them.

(Soundbite of engine being cut; water splashing)

SHOGREN: He hops out of the boat and wades into knee-deep water for a closer look at the trees.

Prof. SHAFFER: Cypress is a deciduous conifer, a very beautiful tree related to the redwood.

SHOGREN: He says cypress plays a crucial role in the swamps that cover hundreds of thousand of acres of coastal Louisiana. These swamps prevent floods by collection storm waters. They also clean water by filtering out pollution and provide habitat for a wide variety of animals, like migratory songbirds. Ivory-billed woodpeckers, thought to be extinct until a few weeks ago, once thrived in these swamps. Shaffer fears what will happen if loggers cut down the trees.

Prof. SHAFFER: The area could convert to some sort of a marsh, could just turn straight into open water.

SHOGREN: He says the loss of cypress trees upsets the whole ecosystem.

Prof. SHAFFER: The swamps that have turned into marshes in this area are completely avoided by birds, and the swamps that are still intact are loaded with Neotropical migrants.

SHOGREN: He and other local scientists closely studied sections of swamp and they extrapolated their findings to the entire area. They estimate 80 percent of coastal Louisiana's cypress forest would not grow back if they're cut down, but that's a difficult case to make to the people clamoring for timber. After all, this same forest of towering trees was cut down completely about a hundred years ago.

Prof. SHAFFER: One of the arguments that the loggers make is that, `Wait a second. We cut this whole thing over and it all came back.' Almost all of it had secondary trees come in, and that is absolutely true. But the system has changed so dramatically over the last hundred years that it's not the same system anymore.

SHOGREN: Major water diversion projects decades ago cut off these swamps from the rivers that used to replenish them with sediment, so the ground level is sinking and the water level is rising. Cypress trees can live in water, but their seeds need drier ground to germinate. In many of these swamps, the water no longer recedes long enough to let new trees develop. State forester Paul Frey agrees that some areas wouldn't regenerate if cut, but he argues those fragile areas won't be logged because it's too expensive to get equipment to them. He shows us some recently logged forests where cypress saplings already are growing.

Mr. PAUL FREY (Louisiana State Forester): These stands can, in fact, regenerate. That's how they got here in the first place. When they were harvested at the turn of the century, they came back. They can be harvested now and they will come back.

SHOGREN: At that time, cypress timber fueled a booming economy. Frey says it could boost local economies again, and since most of these forests are on private property, he thinks those owners deserve a chance to cash in now. But this push to log is coming at a time when both the federal government and state governments are making a major investment in restoring these swamps. Mark Davis of the Coalition To Restore Coastal Louisiana says logging needs to be delayed in order to give that public money a chance to work.

Mr. MARK DAVIS (Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana): Unlike a hundred years ago, we're talking about investing literally, you know, millions and billions of public dollars in an effort to rehabilitate and restore a coastal system that produces vast benefits not just for Louisiana but for this nation.

SHOGREN: Davis concedes that logging is a part of the swamp's future but he'd like to see them restored first, so would ecologist Gary Shaffer.

Prof. SHAFFER: One of things we'd like to see is a moratorium placed on logging until, say, a decade from now or two decades from now, that swamp is converted back into a sustainable swamp where you could log and have it regenerate on its own.

SHOGREN: But for now, there's no moratorium and no law that protects the cypress. The only thing keeping the loggers from the wood is a turf battle in Washington.

Unidentified Man: We've been trying to cut this timber for a long time, and the Corps of Engineers keeps shutting us down.

SHOGREN: More on that tomorrow. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

MONTAGE: A map projecting the effects of cypress logging can be found at npr.org.

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