By now, most people have caught the excitement over the story that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker has been re-discovered in an Arkansas wildlife refuge after it was long believed to have been decimated to extinction. The story is today’s most-emailed article in the NY Times, demonstrating the very high value that people place on environmental issues, and on preserving ample habitat for diverse species to survive.
An interesting story on the search for the woodpecker can be heard in a 2002 NPR Radio Expeditions story.
Observe that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is pictured above in a cypress swamp. Also note that the Radio Expeditions story was done in a cypress swamp in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, just north of New Orleans – an area where the woodpecker was last thought to be heard tapping on a tree.
Collectively, Louisiana’s wetlands provide over 30 percent of the nation’s total
commercial fisheries harvest and serve as the over-wintering habitat for 70 percent of the migratory waterfowl of the central and Mississippi flyway.
Unfortunately, there’s a tragic dimension to this story. At just the time when almost all Americans are giddy with excitement at this amazing discovery, Congress may be signing a death warrant on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.
Cypress swamps are now among the most threatened habitats in the world. The resistance of cypress to rot makes the wood highly desireable for mulch.
Yes, mulch! Wood chips! Logging companies are reducing cypress forests into wood chips at an unprecedented rate.
Now, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) wants to make it even easier for loggers to get to the trees. He snuck a provision into a vital Louisiana coastal restoration bill to allow unregulated destruction of cypress forests – and there’s no doubt about it – Vitter wants the provision passed so that, specifically, more cypress can be harvested.
SEC. 2022. OBSTRUCTION OF NAVIGATION.
Section 10 of the Act of March 3, 1899 (33 U.S.C. 403), is amended by adding at the end the following: “Nothing in this section regulates any activity that occurs, or structure that is located, on private property, unless the Secretary, in consultation with the Secretary of the department in which the Coast Guard is operating, determines that such an activity or structure poses a threat to the safe transit of maritime traffic.”
The Army Corps of Engineers has undertaken the responsibility for protecting cypress swampland under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act. An email sent out by the Louisiana Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club explained the intent of Vitter’s amendment:
This amendment would effectively remove the Corps’ currently broad jurisdiction to regulate any activity – even on private property–if it is tidal or under the ordinary high water mark, that affects the condition and capacity of navigable waters under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act. This language would impose a standard of “poses a threat to safe transit of maritime traffic” as determined by the Secretaries. This language is aimed at the authority that the Corps of Engineers has used in Louisiana to halt logging of cypress forests in the Maurepas Basin and to require a permit process. BUT it would also remove a broad jurisdiction under which the Corps looks at tidal marshes (Louisiana’s coastal marshes) as well.
The Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club had this to say on their website:
“In just a couple of sentences, this provision will let coastal cypress forests be clear-cut without any kind of permits required,” said Dean Wilson, chair of the Sierra Club Atchafalaya Committee. “In the same piece of legislation that we are asking Congress to authorize $1.9 billion dollars for restoring and protecting Louisiana’s coast, Senator Vitter’s amendment will protect the loggers as they destroy coastal forests. Most of those forests are not renewable and will never come back.”
The Vitter amendment was added into the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2005 in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, of which Senator Vitter is a member. By changing the scope of Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the provision would remove much Corps of Engineers oversight on activities on private lands that affect navigable waters, including clear-cutting of cypress forests.
“It’s clear that the timber industry wants to cut down our cypress swamps, just as they did when they logged out our ancient cypress forests in the early 1900’s. The Vitter amendment will help them do it without permits or oversight,” said Maurice Coman, Sierra Club Conservation Chair.
What a travesty! Can anyone imagine a picture of Louisiana without a cypress swamp?
And hey – this isn’t just about Louisiana. The Vitter provision will affect wetlands across the entire United States.
So tell Vitter where he can put his amendment.
Then tell your own senator to give Vitter’s amendment a thumbs down.
Finally, spread the news to everyone you know. This is the perfect time to act to kill Vitter’s amendment.
On more complete information provided to me by a reliable source, I should provide additional insight on the Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction to protect cypress swamps.
Normally, if the Army Corps of Engineers finds that a cypress swamp falls within an area delineated as a wetland, the Corps has the jurisdiction under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to protect that area and the forest habitat. There is, however, a silviculture exemption to Section 404.
If a silviculture exemption is declared, the Corps has been resorting to Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, which requires permission from the Corps for a host of activities that might be undertaken in the course of cypress extraction.
The Corps hasn’t always been able to resort to Section 10, leading to a number of logging companies getting access rights to extract cypress. The difficulty of protecting cypress swampland underscores the need to establish a regulatory system that brings into consideration a definition of wetlands that more broadly encompasses an entire ecosystem. Moreover, there may be a need to better define what the Corps’ role should be in protecting wetlands, or even if the jurisdiction should pass to some other agency because of the sometimes conflicting missions the Corps has of both flood control and wetlands protection.