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We grind up natural treasures for mulch

A cypress tree cut down near Centralia in 1912 that was the largest known in the world. It measured 20 feet in width.

Courtesy of Robert G. Martinez

A cypress tree cut down near Centralia in 1912 that was the largest known in the world. It measured 20 feet in width.

One of the most famous photographs in county history, taken nearly a century ago in the logging town of Centralia, shows the corpse of a giant cypress tree laid out on a rail car.

It was big enough to yield 5,476 board feet of cypress, a world record at the time, and to make a nearby worker look like an ant alongside a Tootsie Roll.

Considering that the one aim of this mill in northwestern Hernando was to produce as many cypress boards as possible, this picture was no doubt taken out of pride.

Now it probably strikes most people as tragic, like those even older photographs of Lilliputian whalers de-blubbering their catch — the sad sight of humans carving up living things more magnificent than themselves.

Primitive humans, that is, from way back. Before we put all that thoughtless slaughter behind us.

Except we haven't, according to my fellow scolds in the environmental community who are doing what they do best: reminding us that we haven't evolved quite as far as we think.

Anyone who spreads cypress mulch on flower beds is complicit in destroying cypress swamps that filter our drinking water, protect us from flooding and provide habitat for wildlife, says Joe Murphy, Florida coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network.

The main target of Murphy's current campaign, though, is not consumers, but the three largest sellers of cypress mulch: Lowe's, Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

"We formally request that your stores immediately cease all sales of cypress mulch,'' he wrote in a letter to the three stores that has been signed by representatives of nearly 50 environmental groups and that he plans to send Thursday.

"We need cypress trees in our wetlands, in our swamps, in cypress domes ... not in plastic bags as mulch.''

This drive is modeled after an earlier one in Louisiana that persuaded all three chain stores to limit (and, in the case of Wal-Mart, eliminate) sales of cypress mulch harvested in that state, where more than 80,000 acres of cypress have been clear-cut since 2000, said Dan Favre of the Louisiana chapter of the network.

But less logging in Louisiana has meant more in Florida, which is now by far the leading source of cypress mulch, Favre said. Cypress, meanwhile, is the most widely used mulch in the Southeast and much of the Midwest.

Its popularity is based on a misconception that it resists rot, while it actually lasts no longer than many environmentally responsible alternatives, including pine bark, pine straw and, best of all, mulch made by grinding melaleuca trees, an invasive pest that actually is rot-resistant.

Cypress's reputed staying power is based on another misconception: that it is a by-product of logging mature trees nearly immune to decay.

In fact, because of increased demand, entire cypress forests are now harvested for mulch, Murphy said. This encourages clear-cutting because any tree, no matter how small, can be fed into a chipper to yield a valuable product.

Aha, you say. We have evolved. We no longer cut down those thousand-year-old beauties, just ordinary cypress trees.

Sure, because that is all we have left — the juveniles. Or, going back to the whaling analogy, we can think of them as calves.

Feel better now?

We grind up natural treasures for mulch 05/08/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2008 7:19pm]
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