LAFAYETTE — The St. Martin Parish School Board is negotiating an agreement with the state to spare 640 acres of cypress and hardwood forest land in the Atchafalaya Basin that had been tagged for timber harvest.
The School Board had initially planned to sell the timber on board-owned land for about $90,000 but is now working on an alternative agreement to receive a one-time payment from the state Department of Natural Resources to let the trees stand.
“It helps to maintain the ecosystem as it is,” said St. Martin Parish School Superintendent Richard Lavergne.
The agreement comes after the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper conservation group and others protested the logging of the cypress forest, arguing that state and federal environmental regulations prohibited the move.
Basinkeeper Director Dean Wilson said the conservation agreement with DNR will preserve a cypress forest near Butte La Rose that he estimated to be about 100 to 120 years old, an area that is just now recovering after extensive logging in the Basin in the late 1800s.
The details of the DNR agreement are still being worked out, but the School Board could likely receive a one-time payment of about $60,000 to preserve the property, about $90 to $100 an acre, said Robert Benoit, with DNR.
“We identified an opportunity to work with the St. Martin Parish School Board to craft an agreement that would protect and preserve this prime stand of cypress trees and bottomland hardwoods that are part of the habitat for Basin wildlife by prohibiting the cutting of trees on the School Board’s land,” DNR Secretary Scott Angelle said in a news release.
He said the agreement with the School Board “will mean that swamp and forest land will continue to support wildlife and provide opportunities for eco-tourism and environmental education in the Basin for generations to come.”
DNR Atchafalaya Basin Program Director Stephen Chustz said the School Board will keep mineral rights on the property and could still lease the area for hunting under the agreement, which is called a conservation servitude.
Chustz said the servitude is permanent.
“The trees can’t be cut,” he said.
This is DNR’s first conservation servitude in the Basin, though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has similar agreements on large tracts there, Chustz said.
Benoit said DNR decided to step in because it seemed unlikely the Corps could react quickly enough to save the trees.
“It’s certainly a good investment for us,” Chustz said.
The conservation agreement is still being reviewed by the state Attorney General and is expected to come before the School Board next month.
Lavergne said the School Board had already approved a contract with a timber company to sell the trees, but the company is not pushing the issue.
“They are willing to work with us to get out of it,” he said.