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Photo: Emmett FitzGerald.
Dean Wilson
, protector of Louisiana swampland.

Now that we know how important wetlands are for the environment and for protecting us from the worst effects of hurricanes, it doesn’t seem like a fringe occupation to be a protector of swamps. Among those who take Louisiana’s wetlands seriously is the scrappy nonprofit Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Another defender is Dean Wilson. Emmett FitzGerald at Living on Earth [LOE] interviewed him recently.

“LOE: Once, cypress swamps covered hundreds of thousands of acres across the American South. Logging, oil and gas extraction and swamp drainage transformed the landscape. But over recent years, Dean Wilson has worked to protect the remaining cypress swamps of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin from illegal loggers and oil prospectors. Recently, the European biomass industry has set up shop in the state, and conservationists are concerned for the future. Living on Earth’s Emmett FitzGerald reports. …

“EMMETT FITZGERALD: Dean Wilson doesn’t sound like a Cajun, but he’s been living in the swamps of Southern Louisiana for 30 years now.

“DEAN WILSON: I remember the first time I saw the swamp I fell in love with it. You know you see the beautiful green trees, with the Spanish moss, over water, and those egrets flying around like angels. Uh, I just really fell in love with that.

“FITZGERALD: Dean grew up outside of Madrid, in Spain, but he came to Louisiana in his early twenties on his way to South America. He wanted to get used to the humidity and the mosquitoes before doing scientific research in the Amazon. But he never left the Bayou State.

“WILSON: When I realized I could actually make a living off the land, I decided to stay. I was a commercial fisherman for 16 years, full-time. So I made my living hunting and fishing the swamps in the Atchafalaya Basin for 16 years.

“FITZGERALD: Dean says people call all kinds of marshy wetlands swamps, but true swamps are actually pretty rare, and the Atchafalaya Basin is the largest in the United States.

“WILSON: And the difference between a swamp and a marsh is that a swamp is a flooded forest. So you actually go in the springtime when the waters high you go with a boat through the forest and you can see the birds and the animals the otters minks alligators all the things that live in the swamp. It’s a magnificent place. One of the most beautiful places on earth. The Cypress trees grows to different shapes; they can live to up to 4000 years old. So the Cypresses are incredibly beautiful.

The difference between a swamp and a marsh is that a swamp is a flooded forest.

“FITZGERALD: A few years ago, Dean gave up commercial fishing and turned his attention to protecting the ancient Cypress forest he calls home. Now, Dean patrols the swamp in his little motorboat as the head of the conservation organization Atchafalaya Basinkeeper. Today Dean and I are joined in his boat by his German Shepherd Shanka, and a fellow conservationist.

“PAUL ORR: I’m Paul Orr and I’m Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. …

“FITZGERALD: Dean pulls the boat through the undergrowth into a clearing in the forest, and suddenly hundreds of giant cypress trees are all around us. Their trunks flare out at the bottom like grass skirts. Dean says this cypress forest is teeming with life.

“WILSON: The swamps of the Atchafalaya are considered by scientists the most productive in the entire world. You can go to the Amazon and you may have more biodiversity, but if you get an acre of the Atchafalaya Basin and you’re supposed to get more pounds of fish and crawfish than any other wetlands in the world.

“FITZGERALD: Full-grown cypress trees have nooks and cavities that birds love to nest in.

“WILSON: Nearly half of the waterfowl population in North America come at one time or another through the Atchafalaya basin. So it is a critically important ecosystem not only for North America but the whole western hemisphere.

“FITZGERALD: As we float between the trunks, Dean says swamps like this one once covered much of the American South.

“WILSON: Most people have seen the Amazon river flooding millions of acres of rainforest. The Mississippi used to do the same thing, used to flood 24 million acres of forest. For somebody to picture how big is 24 million acres, there was a time when you could get in a boat, right now this time of year and through this water, could go through this forest, and never leave the forest all the way to Missouri.

“FITZGERALD: But that five-hundred-mile waterway didn’t last. A lucrative timber industry developed in Louisiana around 1700. And then in the 19th century new steamship technology allowed companies to log southern cypress forests quickly and efficiently.

“WILSON: By the year 1900 it was the largest industry in coastal Louisiana, was the cypress logging industry. Uh, and people thought it would last forever. By 1920, it was all over. They logged every single forest in this state. Didn’t leave a single acre standing.

“FITZGERALD: In 1927, the Mississippi River spilled its banks, killing hundreds of people and displacing hundreds of thousands in the most destructive flood in US history. The Army Corps of Engineers responded to the crisis by building levees all up and down the Mississippi to control the flow of the river. The levees were designed to protect cities like New Orleans, but they straight-jacketed the river and prevented the natural flooding of Louisiana’s cypress swamps.

“WILSON: It drained all those forests. Farmers came in, they cut those trees down and today it’s mainly farmland. When people drive through Arkansas, Northern Louisiana, Mississippi through what is called the Delta area, it’s all farmland but it used to be like the Atchafalaya Basin.

“FITZGERALD: Today although the Atchafalaya Basin is smaller than it once was, it’s still one of last great cypress swamps left in the United States. Like all swamps it’s protected under the federal Wetlands Protection Act, and Dean Wilson and Paul Orr want to do everything in their power to preserve it. In 2008, they noticed an uptick in illegal logging in the Atchafalaya. They followed the supply chain all the way to the garden mulch aisle.

“ORR: We realized pretty quickly from following the logs and then finding bags of cypress mulch and following those to Wal-Mart, Lowes and Home Depot that there was this tremendous push to try and build a cypress mulch industry.

“FITZGERALD: But Dean says the companies that supplied the mulch weren’t clear about where it came from.

“WILSON: Home Depot, Lowes and Wal-Mart were selling the mulch as environmentally harvested. The bags would say ‘Made with environmentally-harvested cypress, from Florida’ – you have a Florida address, so they were actually deceiving the public into buying their mulch.

“ORR: And deceiving the retailers — I think that some of the retailers were not very happy that that was not what they said it was.

“FITZGERALD: So when Paul and Dean brought this issue to the attention of the retailers in 2008, the stores agreed to stop selling Louisiana Cypress mulch. But Dean’s still worried about illegal logging. He says the problem is enforcement.

“WILSON: We have laws to protect wetlands, the problem is those laws are not being enforced, and the government isn’t even putting in the resources to enforce them, they don’t even have a boat, so they can’t be enforced.

“FITZGERALD: And Paul Orr believes that problem starts with the cozy relationship between big business and the state government.

“ORR: I guess it was like the late 90s, early 2000s, the Louisiana Department of Economic Development put an ad in a lot of national publications and it was like a guy in a suit doing a back bend and it said, ‘Louisiana bends over backwards for business.’ And that’s really been the culture in Louisiana — the wealthy business people just give away all of our natural resources and our tax monies and everything for business.”

Oh, Homeowners, here’s a simple thing you can do: don’t buy mulch.

More at Living on Earth, here. There is no firewall, but donations are encouraged.

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Photo: Caitlin Faulds/ecoRI News.
Save The Bay’s Wenley Ferguson is leading a marsh migration project on Sapowet Marsh in Tiverton, R.I. The goal is to slowly drain pools of standing water, some more than 18 inches deep, to protect marsh grasses and stop erosion.

Today I learned a few things about marshes that I didn’t know. For example, they are supposed to be wet but not too wet. In Rhode Island, one important wetland was dying — until it was given a helping hand.

Caitlin Faulds has the story at ecoRI News. “The grasses are dying. Clusters of broken, denuded stems stand in shallow pools of brackish water, making a patchwork of the low-lying marshlands. The slow balding is invisible from the blacktop of Seapowet Avenue, hidden behind a thick curtain of phragmites. But standing boot-deep in the peat, surrounded by the sulfuric scent of decomposition, the bare ground is clear evidence of the steady saltwater creep happening in marshes across Rhode Island.

“Spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass, is notoriously salt-tolerant and a common feature in saltwater marsh environments.

“ ‘They can grow along the edge of the cove and get flooded twice a day, but they can’t grow in standing water,’ said Wenley Ferguson, shovel in hand. All around, the sunlight glints off pools of standing water, unable to drain and slowly growing with each high tide.

“The average sea level in Rhode Island has increased by about a foot since 1929. Storm surges and king tides have pushed further and further inland. Normally, the marsh would respond to the rising high-water line by matching the migration inland. But with the sea on one side and a dense web of roads, development, cultivated fields, and invasive species on the other — and accelerated sea-level rise on its way — Sapowet Marsh has nowhere to move. …

“Ferguson has been working with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) at the Sapowet Marsh Wildlife Management Area, a 260-acre state property, for more than five years now. … Under Ferguson’s watch, Sapowet has become home to the largest marsh migration facilitation project in the state — a small counter to the forces at play. …

“The cordgrass roots are taut, but they cut easy. Just one stomp and the shovel sinks through the muck, water pooling up and over the toes of Ferguson’s black rubber boots. …

“Earlier in the week, Ferguson — along with a handful of DEM employees and volunteers — used shovels and a small excavator to dig a weaving network of runnels through the marsh. These shallow creeks will give the pooling water a route out to Narragansett Bay, allowing the area to slowly drain.

If the root zone of the marsh plants is able to dry even slightly, they will grow ‘healthy and happy,’ Ferguson said. Healthy plants build up a stronger root base, and a stronger root base makes a coastline more resilient to erosion and sea-level rise.

“But ‘we don’t want to drain it too fast,’ she said. It has been three days since they dug the first runnels and the water level has dropped only slightly, exposing a few inches of bare mud — exactly as planned. The standing water is thick with unconsolidated sediments and topped by a bacterial mat. If the water rushes out all at once, this sediment will pour into the bay. It’s better to dig in phases and let it settle out in the marsh, maintaining as much high ground as possible. …

“Ferguson fought to keep the peat in the marsh. … ‘These areas will just be a little higher, and they might recolonize,’ Ferguson said. ‘And when I say might — they do recolonize.’

“Within one season, the islands will host new sprouts of cordgrass, or they’ll prove high and dry enough to support clusters of high marsh grasses. The clusters of high grass will make ideal nesting habitat for the saltmarsh sparrow.”

Read about other benefits at ecoRI, here.

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