WEST OCEAN CITY – Local environmentalists kicked off a campaign last week asking gardeners to boycott cypress mulch to protect cypress trees in Louisiana and Florida.
Cypress trees are not a sustainable species, Joe Fehrer, Land Manager for the Nature Conservancy’s Nassawango Creek Preserve and past president of Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT), said last Friday.
“They’re slow to germinate and slow to reach maturity,” said Fehrer, who is the son of legendary Worcester County environmental activist Ilia Fehrer, who passed away last year.
ACT hosted the press conference featuring Fehrer at the Village Greens Garden Center in West Ocean City, which has pledged not to sell cypress mulch.
“Hundreds of acres of cypress swamp have been clear cut to provide mulch for home gardens and other properties,” Fehrer said. “This mulch is not rot resistant as claimed. Only the heartwood of those young cypress trees has that unique feature.”
The heartwood makes up just a small percentage of the wood of a young cypress tree, he said, adding, “Only mature cypress trees have enough heartwood to be resistant.”
Cypress trees are cut from swamps in Louisiana, Florida and Alabama, along the Gulf of Mexico coast, that act as sponges for stormwater and storm surges and buffer adjacent uplands from inundation by stormwater.
Without those trees, the swamps are unable to absorb storm surges that can damage communities and cities, as happened in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s just not good for the environment,” said Village Greens Garden Center owner Debbie Rogers. “They’re cutting down the bald cypress in lowland areas where they naturally grow and where they need the plant to stay to keep the land from washing away.”
Cypress trees cannot sprout in standing water, a feature of many gulf coast swamps with levees in place, and the ones that do sprout often cannot compete with native and invasive species that grow more quickly to fill the void left by the often illegal harvesting of the slow to grow trees. “Once you remove that tree stock, it’s probably gone for good,” Fehrer said.
Although federal law protects cypress trees to some degree, the state of Louisiana has no protections for cypress. Unlike in Maryland, the state also has no certification program or other way of ensuring that trees are harvested in a responsible and sustainable way, Fehrer said.
Worcester County’s Pocomoke River watershed is home to one of the northernmost cypress stands in the United States, but those trees are protected.
“We tend to get complacent. We tend to take them for granted,” said Fehrer.
The marketplace offers a variety of mulch products that are more sustainable, according to Fehrer.
“There’s pine bark mulch, a hardwood shredded mulch. There is cedar mulch, too, and cacao shell mulch,” Rogers said.
These other mulches are byproducts of lumbering and the chocolate industry.
“I would just urge everyone to please consider alternatives to cypress mulch. There are many, many alternatives,” Fehrer said. “I would urge everyone to think twice when you buy mulch. The retailers who sell this produce may get the message.”
Some retailers have already heard the message.
“There was enough pressure brought on it that Lowe’s stores at least in lower Louisiana stopped carrying it,” said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips.
Last fall, Wal-Mart pledged to stop buying cypress mulch to sell as of 2008.
“Think about what you’re buying. Be more environmentally aware,” Rogers said.