Land Dispute Ends in Conservation Agreement

Jul 27, 2012

A cypress logging deal between a local school board and a timber company has failed to go through after outcry from environmental groups who said the trees need to be protected. But as WRKF's Tegan Wendland reports, the school board really needed the money, so they've come up with an alternative. 

This map from the St. Martin Parish Assessor 's office shows where the school board's section 16 property is located. (WRKF)

Director of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Dean Wilson, spends most of his days out in the basin. He left his native Spain and fell in love with Louisiana's swamps and bayous. He says it's like heaven to him, and it wouldn't be the same without the trees - the bottomland hardwood and cypress trees are among the most valuable, and most fragile resources in the basin. He says in the 1800's the state had about ten million acres of cypress swamp. "Today we only have around 750,000 acres because they've logged a lot of them for mulch. So that shows you how hard it is for cypress and tupelo to grow back after you cut them down," says Wilson.

The St. Martin Parish School District owns about 640 acres of this forest. School Board President Richard Lavergne says when Good Hope timber offered $80,000 to log the land for mulch, the district jumped at the opportunity. "We've been losing funds for the last two, three years - it's a way for us to produce funding," says Lavergne. But Wilson and five other organizations saw it as a bad deal for the cypress forest, which is over 100 years old. They threatened to sue the school board, saying logging the area was illegal and violated the federal Clean Water Act.

Dean Wilson, Director of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper. (Tegan Wendland/WRKF)

Tulane Law Professor, Machelle Hall, represents the environmental groups. "It can be difficult to re-grow the cypress and if it's not going to be able to re-grow, if it's not a sustainable logging operation, there's no exception under the Clean Water Act," says Hall. But Lavergne says as far as the board knew the logging was totally legal, according to the rules of the state Department of Natural Resources. He says, "The board attorney, Mr. Mark Boyer, in a letter to the board said as long as we meet all of the requirements by the DNR that we were within our rights to do so."

But it turned into a PR nightmare for the school board. DNR Secretary Stephen Chutz says when he noticed all the uproar they decided to offer a special agreement to the school board called a "conservation servitude". Chutz says, "It's one that's commonly used by folks such as the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and others. It's a legal instrument and it allows landowners or the party who has the use of the property to voluntarily restrict the way that land can be used. " The agreement will provide the school board with about $60,000 to leave the property as-is. St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier says it's a good solution to a complicated problem, and the school can still make some money. "Of course they would continue to get the mineral rights, but if the school board wants to lease the property to hunt and fish they can do that," says Cormier.

Lavergne says it's all turned out for the best, but he says it was never going to be as bad as the environmental groups were making it out to be. He adds that he doesn't understand why the school board didn't hear from them until the logging contract was signed, "There were certain conditions. There were certain types, and sizes that you couldn't cut. They were making like we were going to cut them all down, but that wasn't true, there were requirements. But yes, some cypress would have been cut."

Hall says many questions still remain. She says because the land is classified as "Section 16," the state technically owns it while the school board has the rights to manage it. There's a state statute that limits logging of cypress on public lands. She says, "There are some issues that are unresolved as far as what's legal and what wouldn't have been legal."

Wilson says this case is the just the tip of the iceberg. He claims the basin is systematically mismanaged, and that the Army Corps of Engineers needs to do more to prevent illegal logging and the threats of oil drilling.

Cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin. (Tegan Wendland/WRKF)

"They have plenty of power and plenty of enforcement - but if you get caught with a bass, you're going to be punished worse than someone who puts a dam in the bayou. But the guy that did the dam, nothing happened to him, you catch a big bass, you get a big ticket," says Wilson.

The Basinkeeper's next mission? Taking the Army Corps to task for their recently published Master Plan, which Wilson says doesn't do enough to protect the basin.