The dead and dying vegetation left behind by Katrina and Rita ultimately will put as much carbon into the air as the rest of America's forests take out in a year of photosynthesis.
WASHINGTON — New satellite imaging has revealed that hurricanes Katrina and Rita produced the largest single forestry disaster on record in America — an essentially unreported ecological catastrophe that killed or severely damaged about 320 million trees in Mississippi and Louisiana.
The die-off, caused initially by wind and later by weeks-long pooling of stagnant water, was so massive that researchers say it will add significantly to the global greenhouse-gas buildup — ultimately putting as much carbon from dying vegetation into the air as the rest of the nation’s forests take out in a year of photosynthesis.
In addition, the downing of so many trees has opened vast and sometimes fragile tracts to several aggressive and fast-growing exotic species that are already squeezing out far more environmentally productive native species.
Efforts to limit the damage have been handicapped by the ineffectiveness of a $504 million federal program to help Gulf Coast landowners replant and fight the invasive species. Congress appropriated the money in 2005 and added to it in 2007, but officials acknowledge that the program got off to a slow start and only about $70 million has been promised or dispensed so far. Local advocates said onerous bureaucratic hurdles and low compensation rates are major reasons why.
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“This is the worst environmental disaster in the United States since the Exxon Valdez accident … and the greatest forest destruction in modern times,” said James Cummins, executive director of the conservation group Wildlife Mississippi and a board member of the Mississippi Forestry Commission. “It needs a really broad and aggressive response, and so far that just hasn’t happened.”
The U.S. Forest Service and Farm Service Agency had made estimates of the forest damage from two 2005 hurricanes, but they have generally focused on economic losses — $2 billion, or 5.5 billion board feet, worth of timber.
The new assessment of tree damage comes from a study being published today in the journal Science, written primarily by researchers at Tulane University who studied images from two NASA satellites.
Lead author Jeffrey Chambers said the team used a before-and-after method perfected by researchers who study logging in the Amazon River basin to assess the damage, which occurred over an area the size of Maine. The satellite images identified green vegetation before the storm and wood, dead vegetation and surface litter after it. The team then visited the areas of greatest damage to make their overall assessment.
“I was amazed at the quantitative impact of the storm,” Chambers said. Of 320 million trees harmed, about two-thirds soon died. “I certainly didn’t expect that big an impact.”
Chambers was even more surprised when his team calculated how much carbon will be released as the storm-damaged vegetation decomposes. The total came to about 1.1 billion tons, equal to the amount that all the trees in the United States take out of the atmosphere in a year.
A large portion of the forest devastated by Katrina and Rita belongs to relatively small landowners, who use their property as an investment to be logged when they need some cash. The federal program designed in 2005 to address the destruction was an emergency add-on to the popular federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners “rent” for returning marginal or environmentally sensitive land to more natural conditions.
Larry Payne, director for cooperative forestry for the U.S. Forest Service said, “Congress wanted to get money back into the hands of these people, and that was the top priority.” But generally it hasn’t worked out.
Judd Brooke, for instance, owns 4,000 acres of timberland in Mississippi’s Hancock County, one of the hardest-hit areas. He had wanted to use the emergency funding on 35 to 40 damaged acres to plant longleaf pine, which is native to the area but quickly disappearing. But to qualify, his entire property would be off-limits for logging for 10 years.
“It was just crazy,” Brooke said. “Around here, the program was a total disaster, as far as I can tell.”
In contrast, he said, a smaller but better-adapted program to clear hurricane-damaged land was well received, as was the Mississippi state tax credit program for affected forestland owners.
Payne and Bengt “Skip” Hyberg, a U.S. Farm Service Agency economist and policy analyst, said the Gulf Coast landowners were subject to most of the same restrictions and compensation rates as Conservation Reserve participants around the nation, where circumstances and needs are different. For instance, the “rental” rates are based on the quality of the soil, which is generally sandy and not considered valuable agriculturally in the affected area. In addition, landowners had to promise not to log any of their land if they accepted funding for even a small portion of it.
Hyberg said changes were made in the program this year to make it more attractive to landowners.
Katrina came ashore along the Pearl River, which divides Mississippi and Louisiana and is ecologically very rich and diverse. The Chambers study, as well as the work of local conservationists including Cummins, found that such native species as longleaf pine, live oak and cypress survived the hurricane much better than species planted primarily for logging, such as loblolly and slash pine.
But some of the native deciduous forests were severely damaged, and the young, slow-growing oaks and maples are being squeezed out by Chinese tallow trees — an ornamental plant imported more than a century ago. It thrives on disturbed land and is running wild in the damaged area, foresters said. The tree produces a milky, toxic sap that keeps insects away and makes an inhospitable habitat for birds and small mammals.
In pine forests, the suddenly open spaces are being taken over by other invasive species as well, especially cogon. The aggressive Japanese grass was initially imported as packing material for oranges, but it has gotten into the environment and squeezes out more productive native species.
“As the Chinese tallow and other invasives take over, they form a dense canopy that makes it hard for the oak and maple to grow well,” said Richard Martin, director for conservation services at the Nature Conservancy in Louisiana. “Those trees will win out in the end, but it will take hundreds of years rather than a much quicker response if the invasives weren’t there.”
The slow pace of the reforestation has disappointed many conservationists, but so too has the government’s failure to encourage the planting of longleaf pine — which once dominated 40 million acres in the Southeast but is now down to 1 million acres.
Urban “forests” often fared even worse than timber plots. According to Edward Macie, regional urban forester for Forest Service’s Southern Region, about 75 percent of trees in New Orleans died because of the storm. In some towns along the Mississippi coast, he said, not a tree remained standing.