HAMMOND, LA (WAFB) - Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond will soon reap the benefits from a civil lawsuit against an accused illegal logger. A Tennessee businessman agreed to pay $33,000 in July as part of the settlement. Southeastern’s Wetland Restoration Lab will use the funds to plant 3,300 cypress trees in places that need them the most.
They start as seedlings at greenhouses in Hammond. Students get down and dirty cultivating cypress and tupelo trees under the direction of Dr. Gary Shaffer.
“I generally go through 14 t-shirts a day, and I mean soaking wet t-shirts,” Shaffer said on a humid August morning. “The kind of work we do is incredibly laborious. You start going into tetany, your muscles start locking up around lunchtime.
It's hard work, but it’s also critically important.
“The swamps all over coastal Louisiana are mostly dying right now. Wait another 10 years, 20 years, the swamp will be gone. We have about 800,000 acres of swamp that's mostly in decay,” Shaffer said.
The biology professor’s team is currently growing around 17,000 seedlings, and this fall they’ll add the extra 3,300. The lawsuit was filed after
Atchafalaya Basinkeeper Dean Wilson spotted illegal logging activity in 2006 while flying over the Maurepas basin.
“We really don't go around looking who we're going to sue tomorrow. For us, litigation is a sign of failure of our government to enforce our environmental laws,” Wilson said. “Before we do a lawsuit, we try so hard to empower our agencies to do enforcement and do their work.”
Wilson said the monetary settlement is meant as a deterrent for others logging illegally. He suggested the money go to Dr. Shaffer's efforts.
“It’s an amazing program. He's an amazing guy. He's one of our angels in Louisiana, and I'm glad he got the money,” he said.
“It was just a phone call. A lawyer called me, it was out of the blue. I was shocked, but yeah, we can do good things with that money,” Shaffer said.
From the greenhouses, the seedlings make the short trip toward Ponchatoula to the Hammond Assimilation Wetland.
The university was allowed to tap into a pipeline that carries nutrient-rich waste water near I-55. The water accelerates the growth of the trees, meaning what usually takes three years, happens in about five months.
“It's pretty much free fertilizer,” said graduate student Glenn Dobson. “So what we took and did is we built some bays and this acts as our nursery for our larger trees.”
The bigger trees have a better chance at survival once they're planted in the Manchac and Maurepas swamps. It's just one way Southeastern's program has made wetland restoration more efficient.
“We think we can plant cypress ten times cheaper than it costs right now, just with these inventions that we've come up with,” Shaffer said. They’ve also developed a system to “nutria-proof” their precious seedlings.
More sturdy cypress forests mean better protection from hurricanes, and Shaffer is looking forward to money from the BP settlement for the area's next big project. He said the scope of what needs to be done is frustrating at times.
“I've been working at this for over a decade in terms of trying to get restoration projects in swamps, and we still don't have a single restoration project in a swamp. Once the BP money hits, we're going to have one right off the bat,” he said.
Ideally, coastal Louisiana needs about 10 million new cypress trees to help protect against hurricanes. The trees reach a height of 30 feet in four to five years, and their network of roots keeps them from blowing over in high winds.