On Saturday, Dean Wilson was frying a small mountain of fish in the kitchen of his tiny bayou-side house with its wood-burning stove and rusting tin roof. A few chickens and a rooster were pecking around outside beside his johnboat and trailer and among the hunting and fishing gear scattered about. A small cypress tree in his front yard was adorned with Spanish moss.
A group of twenty or so hungry visitors (participants of a Bayou Sorrell
paddling tour that Dean just led) hung out on the tiny front porch and clustered around the dining-room table, beers in hand. Dean single-handedly breaded each morsel of fish and dropped it in the bubbling fry pan. I kept wondering why he didn’t just dump all the fish in the bowl of corn meal, stir them up, and be done with it. But he kept up his methodical pace, morsel by morsel, for several hours. Continually distracted from his work by friendly banter and a steady stream of questions from his guests, he persisted until the last of the group could eat no more.
The way he breads his fish is pretty much the way Dean has gone about saving the cypress trees of the Atchafalaya Basin—with patient determination. It’s a remarkable David-and-Goliath story of an imperturbable, scrappy guy battling well funded, powerful corporate and political interests—a fight he has undertaken at some personal risk (his dog was poisoned and his wife and child live miles away due to the violent threats against him). It’s also a story that, for the moment, is turning out well for the trees and the remarkable ecological, social, and economic benefits they bestow.
Dean grew up in Spain, born to a Spanish mother and an American father (you can hear the Spanish accent, liberally spiced with Cajun). He came to the Atchafalaya at age 22 as a way to acclimatize himself to the “heat and bugs” before venturing into the Amazon where he wanted to work with an environmental group. Completely lacking wilderness skills, initially unwelcomed (threatened, actually) by his new neighbors, he took a liking to the place and never left.
He made ends meet as a commercial fisherman for 15 years, until in the early 1990s he became aware that logging of whole cypress trees for mulch was being encouraged by the state of Louisiana. Great mulch can be made from the rot-resistant wood of older cypress, a quality that also made the trees wonderful for lumber, which brought about the original clear-cutting of the swamps. Here’s a short clip from the 1920s, posted on YouTube by the Forest History Society, showing original harvesting methods:
No large stands of virgin Louisiana cypress remain, though the clusters of individual trees, some over 1,000 years old, send the imagination soaring as to what Louisiana’s coastal swamps once looked like. For a tantalizing glimpse, check out this extraordinary photo gallery by photographer David Chauvin, who was also on our trip with Dean.
After the original harvest, a little less than half of the 2 million acres of virgin cypress regenerated in the swamps, where they have continued to provide ecological services that have been valued at some $6.6-billion annually. These include robust hurricane protection for coastal communities, habitat for birds that supports birding and ecotourism, and perpetuating ecological conditions in swamps that are important for commercial and sport fishing and hunting. The one-time value of the trees as mulch is about $3.3 billion. When logged today, most of the cypress won’t regenerate for several reasons, including overwhelming competition from the Chinese tallow tree, an invasive species that can grow as much as ten feet-per year.
Dean began leading swamp tours to raise awareness of the threat to the cypress, which really ramped up in the late 1990s. The logging was mostly on private lands and was legal, as long as road-building permits were sought. The permits required minimum impacts and mitigation for destruction of wetlands. Rather than incur these expenses, the loggers routinely didn’t seek permits and operated very quickly. Finding their operations in the dense swamps in time to stop them proved next to impossible.
Then Dean dug in. He formed an organization, the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, affiliated with the Riverkeeper Alliance founded by Robert Kennedy Jr., which gave his efforts organizational strength. He also learned about a nonprofit group, Southwings, that organized the services of volunteer private pilots to provide aerial reconnaissance of environmentally threatened areas. Dean was able to find and document illegal aspects of logging operations through aerial photography. He also enlisted volunteers to follow logging trucks from harvest sites to mulching plants.
Over his fried fish, he told a sobering tale to our group about a photography outing to a mulching facility where he was able to get pictures of the operation, including mulch bags claiming the “sustainable” mulch was made from “sawmill by-product.” Though the workers gave him access to the plant, he eventually confronted a very angry security guard and escaped while being lead to a remote corner of the facility by to “answer a few questions.”
With evidence of illegal logging in hand, Dean then went to the big retailers who were selling the mulch. Walmart areed to stop selling Louisiana cypress mulch, while Lowes and Home Depot followed suit by agreeing not to sell cypress from coastal Lousiana. He also successfully made his case to the EPA and the industry group representing the mulching industry, which was displeased that it had been lied to by their own members as to the source and harvesting practices of their product. Subsequent law suits brought by the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper against the loggers have virtually shut down the practice—at least for now. Dean is quick to point out, however, that only a single logging operation—the only one that cooperated with the Government—has complied with restitution requirements. This places companies who try to make things right at a competitive disadvantage compared to their less ethical peers.
Dean knows the fight isn’t over, in part because he doesn’t expect the logging companies to give up. Also, his struggle is a battle in a larger war against other, even larger forces that threaten the incredible cypress forests of south Louisiana: subsidence (the natural sinking of the delta, made problematic by the levee system that starves the delta of land-building sediment from annual Mississippi River floods) and from salt water intrusion from rising seas and the labyrinth of canals criss-crossing the swamps to service gas and oil rigs. Increasing salinity of delta waters creates ecological havoc on the cypress and other key species.
We can each do our part by avoiding the purchase of cypress mulch—there are plenty of good alternatives. The Atchafalaya Basinkeeper also welcomes our membership support at http://www.basinkeeper.org.
Thankfully, Dean isn’t going anywhere, and he’s still clearly got plenty of fish to fry.
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