St. Martin cypress trees saved?

by Wynce Nolley

The St. Martin Parish School Board has decided to rethink its plans to log cypress trees in the Atchafalaya Basin in light of an offer from the Department of Natural Resources.

After mounting pressure from several environmental groups threatening legal action and an intervention by the Department of Natural Resources, the St. Martin Parish School Board met Wednesday night and voted to renegotiate its deal with Good Hope Inc. to log several acres of cypress trees on a patch of swampland the board owns in the Atchafalaya Basin.

"All we're doing is holding off with our contract with Good Hope," says Superintendent Richard Lavergne. "We're going to deal with DNR and see what kind of proposal they can come up with and then the board is going to have to decide."

According to Lavergne, the board has given him authority to negotiate with DNR to turn the Section 16 land into a conservation easement.

What exactly is a conservation easement? Lavergne admits he's not totally sure but says fundamentally it's an agreement that would protect the basin's natural habitat and ensure that the beloved cypress trees would stand for many generations to come.

The easement would protect the natural ecology of the area but still allow the board to lease the land and maintain the area's mineral rights.

It's seemingly a win-win for both sides. The board could still make good of the Section 16 land to raise revenue for its schools and it would appease the environmental groups like Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, which seeks to protect the precious cypress trees and ecosystem of the area.

"I see this as a great victory for the kids of the parish," says Dean Wilson, executive director of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper. "The Atchafalaya Basin and the cypress forest are the biggest asset that they have for the future. Finally they're going to get a permanent easement and the forest will be permanently protected. Now one day, those trees are going to be 150 feet tall; that's very rewarding."

Wilson adds that if anyone should be thanked for this victory it would be St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier, Secretary of DNR Scott Angelle, Henderson Mayor Sherbin Collette, Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and of course all the members of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and other groups that fought so hard from the very beginning to protect the forest.

But it still might be too early to call this a total victory. Lavergne adds the board is waiting to hear from DNR on how much its willing to offer in order to make the conservation easement a reality. After which, the board must still vote on whether to accept the easement or continue with the logging.

Asked if the board seeks to match the $88,000 in revenues it projected to earn from the logging, Lavergne responded "I don't know if it'll be exactly that much--it could be more, it could be less. We'll just have to wait and see. I think we're going to try to balance everybody out. In the end we want everybody to win."

To see the Ind's related articles on the Atchafalya Basin cypress logging here, here and here.