Cypress tree legislation would ban harvesting on public property

Bald cypress is disappearing at an alarming rate

By: - March 30, 2021 7:00 am

A bald cypress tree stands in the slowly dying wetlands in northern Lake Maurepas. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator).

The cypress tree, one of Louisiana’s most cherished icons, is disappearing at an alarming rate, but a bill introduced in the Louisiana House of Representatives hopes to protect it.

House Bill 239, authored by Rep. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, would make it illegal to cut down, hurt or damage any cypress tree on all public property.

The bill states, “It shall be unlawful for any person or government entity, or his agent or employee, to cut, fell, destroy, remove, or to divert for sale or use, any cypress trees growing or lying on public land owned by or under the control of the state of Louisiana or local governing authority.”

Violators would be subject to a fine of up to $5,000 or six months imprisonment or both. 

“It’s the state tree,” Riser said in a phone interview. “They’re beautiful. And it seemed like they would never go away, but they’re disappearing.”

Louisiana adopted the bald cypress as its official state tree in 1963. Known for having a widely flared trunk base and “knees” protruding from its subsurface roots, the cypress tree is prized for its hardy timber that is naturally resistant to termites and rotting. 

The tree plays a more important role in the state’s ecosystem and flood protection as Louisiana’s wetlands rely on the cypress, said Justin Lemoine, executive director of the Atchafalaya Trace Commission.

“They have a subsurface root system that can grow 30, 40 — even 100 — feet out from the trunk,” Lemoine said. “This holds the soil in place, preventing erosion and runoff.”

Cypress trees are literally holding up Southeast Louisiana’s wetlands, which bear the brunt of storm surges coming from Gulf of Mexico hurricanes, but there are few state regulations protecting the bald cypress. Much of the Atchafalaya Basin, which is home to the state’s largest bald cypress forest, is private property, so Riser’s bill won’t protect those trees. 

“The number of acres of cypress forests have dwindled over the last decade due to logging and land clearing for development,” Lemoine said. “The threats today are continued logging and further development.” 

The supply cannot keep up with demand, and simple replanting efforts won’t solve the problem because the bald cypress grows very slowly with a mature lifespan close to 100 years, Lemoine said. 

Across the state, roughly 3 acres of wetlands are lost every hour, according to Dr. Gary Shaffer, environmental studies professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. Many of the trees that aren’t being cut down are slowly dying due to a low supply of fresh water, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the swamps.  This is particularly evident around Lake Maurepas, where many of the swamps have turned into marsh over the last century, Shaffer said.

Shaffer is working on restoration projects that divert fresh river water into the swamps around Lake Maurepas. He said restoration efforts combined with good legislation like Riser’s can bring back Louisiana’s swamps and their iconic cypress trees.

“If it weren’t for the Maurepas diversion, most of that swamp would be dead in 30 years,” Shaffer said. “So, we need to open swamps back up and bring them fresh, nutrient-rich water.  Bald cypress – water tupelo swamps need all of the help we can give them. So, yes, this legislation would help.”

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House Bill 239

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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