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October 13, 2009

Saving the Atchafalaya's Coastal Cypress Forest


Born on a U.S. Air Force base near Madrid, Spain, to a Spanish mother and an American father, Dean Wilson moved to the United States with his family in 1983. A quarter century later, he has perhaps done more than any other individual to save southern Louisiana's coastal cypress forests.


Wilson had long dreamed of living in the Amazon, and in 1984, the year after he arrived in the States, he decided to go for it. In order to acclimatize, he moved from Illinois to the Atchafalaya Basin in southern Louisiana.

He's still there.

For four months Wilson lived in his tent, living off the fish, raccoon, and other small animals he could catch by hand, hook, arrow, or spear. "I fell in love with Louisiana's swamps," he says. "I never did make it to Brazil."


Eventually he became a commercial fisherman and hunter, and he saw first-hand that centuries-old cypress forests in the Atchafalayathe country's largest swampwere being illegally clearcut to make garden mulch for sale at garden stores and retail giants like Walmart, Lowes, and Home Depot.

"It was being a commercial fisherman that led to my activism," Wilson says. "For years I conducted my own investigation, often in camouflage, sneaking around and documenting the illegal logging operations. I tailed the loggers by foot, car, and boat, taking pictures of the lumber yards and the clear-cutting."

In 2000 he started leading swamp tours by boat, to show people what was being lost. It was around that time that the cypress mulch issue got on the radar of the Sierra Club's Honey Island Group, which started doing public outreach and urging local garden centers not to use cypress mulch.

"We put out a brochure, Don't Let Louisiana's State Tree Become Another Ghost Legend, playing off the tourist industry in New Orleans," says longtime Delta Chapter leader Leslie March. "It caught on, and pretty soon all the local Sierra Club groups were tabling with it at community festivals and garden shows."

Wilson had by now become one of the Sierra Club's leading activists on the issue, and in 2004 he turned his passion into his livelihood when he was approved by the Waterkeeper Alliance as the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper.

Through Wilson and fellow Delta Chapter activist Barry Kohl, the Club gathered evidence demonstrating that many of the cypress logs being mulched had been harvested illegally. Wilson and Leslie March then traveled to Washington, D.C., to convince the EPA that cypress logging in coastal Louisiana was illegal under the Clean Water Act.


Back in Louisiana, the Sierra Club staged rallies, sent thousands of postcards to industry executives, ran radio spots, appeared on radio shows to get the message out to consumers, and helped found the Save Our Cypress coalition.

And then Hurricane Katrina hit, causing storm surges to top New Orleans' levees and flood the city. The consensus after the storm was that the flooding might have been much less severe had Louisiana's coastal forests been intact.


With the help of volunteer pilots from SouthWings, an Alabama-based non-profit whose motto is "conservation through aviation," Wilson began taking aerial photos of mulch plants and logging operations in the Atchafalaya and passing them on to the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. Above, Wilson with two reporters from NBC Channel 33 TV news in Baton Rouge. Below, illegal cypress clearcutting.


"The aerial photos proved that illegal logging was going on," Wilson says. "I basically did the Corps' and EPA's homework for them. The New Orleans District of the Corps has only two enforcers, the enforcement department doesn't even have a boat, and they're supposedly enforcing for both the Corps and the EPA."


Wilson was also getting tips from localsoften from hunting clubswhenever they saw cypress logs being transported to the mulch plants. "I'd find out who owned the land, what timber company it was, and get the Corps and EPA to issue a Cease and Desist order." 

In the face of overwhelming evidence, EPA agreed in 2008 to enforce Section 404 of the Clean Water Act on illegal logging operations. Quickly, Walmart stopped selling cypress mulch from coastal Louisiana, and Home Depot and Lowes soon followed suit. "We successfully closed the doors of the market to coastal Louisiana cypress mulch," Wilson says.


At this writing, cypress logging in the Atchafalaya has ceased. "But it could start up again," Wilson says, "so I'm still doing flyovers to make sure they aren't doing anything. He notes, too, that cypress trees are still being logged in other states for mulch, and so long as the industry remains unregulated, consumers should avoid purchasing cypress mulch.

In recognition of his work, Wilson was recently featured as a People Magazine Hero Among Us.

"Cypress swamps are the most bio-diverse wetlands in North America," Wilson says, "and the Atchafalaya is more diverse and productive than any wetland on the continent. The destruction of these wetlands would affect migratory birds in the Western Hemisphere more than any other ecosystem in North America."

Wilson calls the Atchafalaya "one of the most beautiful faces of Godtruly one of the natural wonders of America."


All photos by Jeffrey Dubinsky, except for aerial photos by Dean Wilson and SouthWings.


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