"That's a pileated woodpecker you're hearing," she says, still staring down at the cut of wood in her hand.
This Livingston Parish swamp forest, located more than a mile from the nearest blacktop road in the small town of French Settlement between Baton Rouge and Ponchatoula, is thriving. Its majestic cypress and tupelo trees are an average of about 80 years old, and Debosier points to the relatively well-spaced rings on the inside of the cypress tree's trunk that indicate years of healthy growth. "It looks like they had just a couple of years of drought," Debosier says, detecting a smaller margin separating two of the trunk's thin inner rings.
As they trek through the swamp in waders, DeBosier and her team take down measurements of the age and size of trees at different points in the forest. DeBosier has a Global Positioning System unit in her backpack to mark down the exact location of every tree measured. The evaluation is one of the most extensive to ever be performed, all in anticipation of the site being logged for its timber.
A ripple of factors spanning back decades has led to this unique situation, in which five state and federal agencies are requesting detailed information about a relatively small potential logging site of about 200 acres of privately owned land. (The landowner, Steve Buratt, declined to be interviewed for this story because his permit has not yet been approved.)
Logging operations on private property have historically followed industry guidelines with little government interference -- as long as the landowner plans to keep the land as a forest. But the south Louisiana landscape has changed significantly since the state's last big cypress timber harvest 100 years ago. Land subsidence associated with coastal erosion, the proliferation of nutria rats, and a variety of water drainage changes resulting from commercial development, oil exploration and flood control have environmentalists questioning if cut forests will be able to grow back.
To some loggers, it all amounts to needless red tape. "It's crazy over there (in Louisiana)," says Jay Huber, a logger with Southern Timber Management based in St. Augustine, Fla. "Out there, if it's got cypress on it, it's like a dang cow in India."
But environmentalists see government action as a chance to save the vulnerable cypress -- the state tree of Louisiana. "Most groups that I talk to feel that if you cut now, it's a loss forever," says Cynthia Sarthou, campaign director for the five-state Gulf Restoration Network. "If you can delay cuts, you then have a better chance of preserving these (forests) as a legacy."
Recently, the Army Corps of Engineers has stepped into the ongoing dispute between landowners trying to make money by logging trees and environmentalists intent on preserving the cypress forests. The Corps' involvement dates to 1994, when it began to apply Section 10 of the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act to logging operations in Louisiana. Section 10 gives the Corps oversight of any structures built in navigable waters, and the Corps contends the law gives it authority to require a permit for the rows of trees that loggers lay down to bring their equipment into the wetland forests.
Also in the mix are lawmakers, including Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Democratic state Sen. Mike Smith, both of whom are attempting to effectively prevent the Corps from applying Section 10 to Louisiana logging operations --ÊVitter through an amendment to the Water Resources Development Act, and Smith through a state resolution.
To date, Steve Buratt is the only landowner to apply for a Section 10 permit. Overall, loggers and landowners insist that many of the remote areas where they are operating are hardly navigable waterways. They say the Corps is overreaching its authority to appease environmental groups and state authorities they are aligned with in seeking approximately $2 billion in federal funds for coastal restoration projects. Landowners are skeptical that they will be among the prime beneficiaries of coastal restoration. The majority of the state's planned restoration projects are largely unproven, yet to be funded, and could take 30 years to achieve their desired effect.
"Who's going to pay the landowner if that doesn't work?" asks Debosier, a former Louisiana Forestry Department employee who now works with the state Department of Natural Resources' Office of Coastal Restoration and Management. "That's the fear the landowners have. The fear the environmentalists have is if we don't have a moratorium on the harvesting in these areas, there'll be no trees to show whether or not their projects were successful."
The dispute over the cypress forests dates back to the early 1980s and the heyday of the oil and gas boom, Debosier explains. In addition to energy industry intrusion into swamp forests, landowners began selling off cypress forest property along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas for residential development.
"And the next thing you know [the developers] are going to get a [Corps of Engineers] permit to fill in the wetland," DeBosier says. "This is a problem that the forest industry is getting blamed for. It was happening so fast that it was the '90s before people started realizing that we're losing our beautiful swamps and we're losing the functions and values that these swamps hold for our environment."
Cypress trees take approximately 75 to 100 years to mature, and the seedlings left after the last major logging operations of the early 1900s approached optimal size in the 1990s. In 1994, conservationists were horrified when a logging operation wiped out approximately 40 acres of century-old cypress forest off the Amite River just west of Lake Maurepas. After the Corps shut down the operation under Section 10, it discovered that the logger had mowed down the trees for mulch. "That's the only product that was found (on the site)," says Gary Shaffer, a wetlands scientist at Southeastern University in Hammond.
In Florida, the booming mulch business has spurred a movement from the environmental community to boycott the product. "The mulch market has the potential to really impact the forests," says Doug Daigle of the Mississippi River Basin Alliance. But in Louisiana, the mulching of whole cypress trees appears to be limited to isolated incidents. Foresters and loggers contend that the idea is ludicrous because of the high market value of cypress saw logs. Still, Shaffer says the episode illuminated a greater need to survey the state's existing cypress forests and to monitor logging activity.
Shaffer has studied the wetland ecology around the Lake Maurepas area for the past 15 years and is currently wrapping up a five-year study of the region's forests. His findings appear bleak: of roughly 200,000 acres of cypress swamp forest in the Maurepas and Pontchartrain basins, Shaffer says 80 percent of it is "highly unlikely to regenerate."
The regeneration problem stems from a variety of factors. The forests need to periodically drain off their water in order for seedlings from the mature trees to hold firm in the soil and germinate. But with coastal land subsidence, higher water levels, and changes in water drainage, many cypress forests now sit in perennial waters. Shaffer adds that saltwater intrusion from Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas is starting to kill existing trees. Plus, nutria are eating fledgling cypress plants, and some swamp areas are now void of the freshwater nutrients and sediment that used to come through the flooding of the Mississippi River.
Shaffer's analysis comes from a feasibility report for the Hope Canal diversion project, part of the state's Coast 2050 master plan.
"The state has spent $600 million on coastal restoration, and we can't accurately show what we've accomplished," Shaffer says. The problem, he says, has been a lack of data showing the condition of coastal areas prior to restoration projects going into Effect.
By detailing the ailments of the forest ecosystem now, Shaffer hopes the Hope Canal -- a $50 million coastal restoration diversion project slated to run fresh water from the Mississippi six miles north under I-10 to the swamps on the southern end of Lake Maurepas -- could provide a case study for healing the state's ailing swamp forests.
So just how much cypress does the whole state have and how much of it is at risk? "That's the magic question," says Stephen Faulkner, forest ecologist at the National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette. "I think probably the biggest surprise to me was really how little hard, concrete data we have on the existing condition of the resource."
Faulkner, along with Shaffer, are both part of the Science Working Group appointed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco last year to study Louisiana's swamp forests. The group's report, available online at www.coastalforestswg.lsu.edu, lists several recommendations, including the formation of a statewide inventory of the forests in three separate classes according to their regeneration ability.
Shaffer's study is the first to geographically pinpoint the poor condition of forests in the Maurepas basin area. He hopes similar studies will be conducted to chart conditions of swamp forests along the Barataria Bay and the Atchafalaya Basin.
As a result of his study, Shaffer advocates a logging moratorium on swamp forests classified as unlikely to regenerate. Several environmentalist groups --Êincluding the Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network and Louisiana Audubon Council --Êshare his view. They believe a moratorium would give coastal restoration efforts an opportunity to revitalize swamp forests.
The biggest form of this aid, $1.9 billion for Louisiana in the form of the federal Water Resources Development Act, is now awaiting further action by Congress. The first step for the state to get WRDA funding would be approval of the Louisiana Coastal Area Study, a specific list of projects compiled by the Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Natural Resources.
"If we can buy a decade or two decades," says Shaffer, "we probably can restore most of Louisiana's swamps, especially if the Louisiana Coastal Area Study comes through, to where they can become sustainable."
One key player in the WRDA funding has been Louisiana's newest U.S. senator, David Vitter, who is a co-sponsor of the WRDA bill in the Senate. But Vitter is also siding with the forest industry. (His 2004 Senate campaign collected at least $37,500 in contributions from the logging industry.) In addition to sponsoring the WRDA bill, Vitter has attached an amendment that would prohibit the Corps from enforcing Section 10 against private landowners unless it posed a direct threat to maritime traffic. This could open up increased logging opportunities to landowners -- and possibly result in some of this land turning to marsh and open water.
Vitter's office did not return multiple calls for comment for this story, but issued the following in a statement: "My amendment clarifies a law that Congress passed in 1899 to regulate hazards to navigation. Though the law hasn't changed, the Army Corps of Engineers has changed its application of it after 106 years. The precedent the Corps is attempting to set could be applied in similar fashion to virtually any house, car, swing set, trampoline or fence in south Louisiana, and that's a dangerous encroachment on the private property rights of Louisiana citizens."
Vitter has said he would let go of the amendment if he believed it might hurt the coastal restoration effort. But Doug Daigle, of the Mississippi River Basin Alliance, believes any perceived resistance by the state's coastal landowners or congressional delegation to preserve these forests hurts the state's chances OF getting federal assistance for restoration.
"Whenever the state shows that it's not serious about sustaining its coast, that sends the wrong message," he says. "These are all like torpedoes going at the coastal restoration effort, and sooner or later one of them is going to hit."
Toni DeBosier says that many of the forest landowners she knows are somewhat nervous about the coastal restoration plans, largely because they distrust the Corps of Engineers and are uncertain about how these experimental projects will affect their forests. One concern is that diversion projects that bring large sediment deposits to help nourish the forests could end up killing the trees if the layers of silt don't distribute properly. Faulkner and other wetlands scientists dispute that claim, saying that any sediment piling will be small and isolated, and that the overall benefit to the area will far outweigh not taking any action.
"What if you do this and you kill these folks' timber?" DeBosier asks of the Hope Canal project. "That's a pretty big 'what if.'" Landowners also fear that if the project succeeds, public sentiment -- especially after public tax dollars have been used to benefit landowners -- will make future logging efforts more difficult.
Loggers say Louisiana is now the only state where the Corps is applying these restrictions. George Croom, a logger and landowner of about 30,000 acres of cypress forest in Livingston and Ascension parishes, says the Corps' enforcement of Section 10 has extended far beyond the navigable waters definition in the Rivers and Harbors Act.
"We ain't in no rivers, and we ain't in no damn harbor," Croom says. "We don't move any timber by barge. The Corps has really overstepped their bounds and authority over here. They're taking away our rights as landowners."
Such complaints are "much ado about nothing," says Cynthia Sarthou, campaign director for the Gulf Restoration Network. "This is not an extension from Section 10 from what I understand, beyond what has been done in other states. They've only enforced it where logging affects waters of the U.S. ...Êand the only thing the Corps is asking them to do is get a permit.ÊI don't understand why the timber industry is bridling under being asked to get a permit."
The Corps of Engineers was unable to answer specific questions about landowners' concerns by press time, but the Corps' New Orleans district says it has issued only five cease and desist orders to landowners in the past 10 years. In a written statement, the Corps contends that its jurisdiction for Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors act applies to the "ordinary high water mark" of swamp areas.
The Corps also states that the regeneration ability of a particular cypress forest is one of the many factors that goes into its permitting decisions. Other factors include comments solicited from the public, and that "permits are issued for those projects that are not contrary to the overall interest of the public."
In Louisiana, the timber industry is second only to oil and gas production in terms of its economic impact. According to the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the 1999 impact of forestry in Louisiana was $4.4 billion.
Cypress traditionally holds high value because the wood is highly resistant to insects and rot. According to logger Jay Huber, cypress hardwood sells at the mill for about $50 to $60 a ton. By contrast, quality pinewood sells for about $40 a ton.
Croom estimates he has lost about $3 million in land and equipment investment while the Corps held him at bay from logging his timber. He says the timber now sitting idly on his multiple properties is worth another $10 million.
Croom and other landowners have refused to apply for a Section 10 permit from the Corps because they believe it would only justify the Corps' claim to jurisdiction over their property, and they were told it could take more than a year.
The Corps' Section 10 enforcement has resulted in other unexpected problems. Debosier says the Corps issued three cease-and-desist orders in 2003 that resulted in loggers leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of timber on the ground to rot.
"It was an enormous waste of resources and no reason for it," DeBosier says. "Had there been better communication with the landowners rather than a very strong federal arm dictating, then I think we could have resolved this as a local issue."
Foresters have a tendency to be wary of the Corps of Engineers because of its checkered history. In the 1960s, the Corps of Engineers dug the Amite Diversion Canal to alleviate flooding on property south of the Amite River. The diversion canal created large spoil banks that now block the watershed that used to flow down from the swamp forests to the north. On Steve Buratt's property east of French Settlement, forester Mike Thomas points out how much of the swamp forest did not always retain as much perennial water. "It's changed all the natural drainage," Thomas says.
"All that comes from so-called progress from the Corps," says logger Huber. "And they're telling us we can't cut it because it won't grow back. Well, why won't it grow back?"
Another planned state restoration project involves cutting slits in those spoil banks to let water flow through. However, those cuts are proposed for the eastern end of the canal and may not relieve the deep water that Buratt gets on part of his property.
Still, DeBosier, in conjunction with other parish foresters who have visited the site, has concluded that the majority of Buratt's forest will regenerate. Of the 200 acres Buratt has requested to log, DeBosier is recommending that he do a light thinning on roughly 60 acres of his forest where water has a tendency to build up.
Buratt first applied for his permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in November. DeBosier became involved in her survey through the state DNR office, which is required to follow up on any Corps enforcement in the state's coastal zone, a region of 19 south Louisiana parishes eligible for state and federal coastal restoration dollars. Beyond DNR, DeBosier's report will be forwarded to four other state and federal agencies (Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry).
DeBosier stresses the only way the issue will get resolved is if all these agencies come together with landowners and environmental interests. If past history is any indication, that's a tall order. In 2000, Debosier was involved in informal talks between the various groups that quickly broke down. She declined to offer specifics on the impasse.
"What we were trying to do was reach a compromise," she remembers. "First educate the environmental groups on wetland forest management and let environmental groups educate the landowners about their concerns with removal of these trees."
To buy time for coastal restoration efforts, Shaffer and Daigle say that the state needs to either buy up cypress forestland or offer financial incentives to landowners who put a temporary halt to logging on their land.
"We're not against all logging in principle," Daigle says. "But given the state of these areas, we want to see this handled really carefully. The simplest thing to do is to find other things to do other than cutting. But we need time to do that, and the concern is the logging will expand so quickly that we'll lose a lot of these areas before we get to put some of these other options in play."
DeBosier is still hopeful that local industry will be able to work with state and federal agencies in amending industry guidelines for harvesting timber in Louisiana's coastal zone. "My objective is to see compromise brought about," she says. "We still have a chance to right the boat. We need to get the right people at the table to continue negotiations. There are a lot of questions that haven't really been asked and haven't been answered."