A legal brawl may be a brewing over the decision the St. Martin Parish School Board made at its May 2 meeting to log and sell 450 acres of cypress-tupelo trees on a patch of swamp it owns in Section 16 of the Atchafalaya Basin.
"It's a done deal," says St. Martin Parish School Board President Jimmy Blanchard of the contract the board has with the Good Hope timber company. "The contract has been signed. I personally, as president of the board, signed as seller for the St. Martin Parish School Board, and the Good Hope tree company signed as purchaser. Right now all they're waiting for is the permits from the state to start the cutting."
Blanchard says the board's attorney, Mark Boyer, has determined that the contract is legal and the decision to log the cypress doesn't violate state and local laws. According to Blanchard, the logging won't interfere with the Endangered Species Act, despite that the endangered Louisiana Black Bear calls the Atchafalaya home.
He also says the property in question is not state owned water bottom land, so it doesn't violate state law prohibiting the cutting and/or sale of cypress timber on such lands.
School Superintendent Richard Lavergne says the property is actually on dry land; he maintains that the purpose of the Section 16 land is to produce revenue to help run St. Martin Parish schools.
"It's not state bottom water land," says Blanchard. "That's one of the questions that our attorney researched for us. He answered every question that they had [at the meeting], and none of what they presented was a problem. We followed everything as required by law."
Dean Wilson of the nonprofit Atchafalaya Basinkeeper organization disagrees. Wilson says he met with Lavergne and Henderson Mayor Sherbin Collette in February, just before the papers for the sale were signed in an effort to convince the two that the trees should be preserved. Wison says Collette and Lavergne agreed not to sign the documents until they could all meet with the school board.
"When Mr. Blanchard found out we did that, he went around and signed the documents the same day that we met with the superintendent to stop him from getting the school board members to back out of the sale," says Wilson.
Blanchard says he stands behind the board's decision. "This board may make a lot of decisions that a lot of the public is not in agreement with," he says, "but we make our decisions based on facts and what is in the best interest for the St. Martin Parish School Board."
Wilson and the rest in league with the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper aren't swayed. In addition to exploring legal action against both the Good Hope timber company and the St. Martin Parish School Board, they are also challenging Good Hope's permit for the landing area to be built in the basin for the logging.