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This is an aerial photograph of a wildlife refuge in coastal Louisiana from Google Earth. The grooves that look like spokes on a wheel are over 100 years old and will probably be visible from the air for a long time to come. They tell a sad story of American forestry. Scroll down for the story.

Pullboat scars

Pullboat Scars, Manchac Louisiana. Click for full-size image. Source: Google Earth. 30.282103, -90.396869

Baldcypress swamps were a seemingly endless source of wood that played a critical role in the building of New Orleans and cities throughout the South and Caribbean. Baldcypress, close cousins of coast redwood, are massive trees that make wood that is impervious to decay. The combination of huge size and decay resistance made logging in swamp forests irresistible in spite of the difficulty in harvesting trees in swamps.  Many buildings made from baldcypress wood are still standing.

The early days of logging were incredibly labor intensive, especially in swamps.  Logging was done initially by slaves and later by poor black laborers who had to fell huge trees in swamps and then try to get the logs out of the swamp. In spite of these barriers, a tremendous number of cypress logs (the tree is baldcypress, but the wood is called cypress) were hauled out of the swamps.

Pullboat

Pullboat in a Louisiana bayou. The huge steam engine drove a drum which hauled the logs out of the swamp, creating deep grooves. Courtesy New York Public Library

Then came the steam engine and with it, the permanent demise of the great swamp forests of the South. Huge steam engines were put on flat boats and sent up the rivers. These were called pullboats and their purpose was to drag huge logs out of the woods. Cables were snaked into the swamp, attached to the logs and then wound up on the drum of the steam engine. The logs were then rafted out of the woods.

The process of dragging logs through the swamp forest was immensely destructive. Trees that were not harvested were knocked down by the cables. The deep grooves created in the muck soil changed the drainage pattern of the forest – water flowed down these grooves, permanently draining the swamp. Since the pullboat sat in one place and dragged logs toward it, the deep grooves were in a radial array starting at the point where the pullboat was anchored.  It is these radial or linear scars that are visible on Google Earth today.

Logging ceased by the late 1930s, picked up again during the war and continued until about 1950, by which time the resource was exhausted. The loggers had no interest in repairing the damage they did, or in trying to regenerate the forest.  This was classic “cut and run” logging, more akin to mining than to forestry.

Today, a little bit of cypress wood still reaches market from the few second-growth stands or by dredging old logs out of the muck in the swamps. Most of the swamps are gone, replaced by marsh vegetation because the grooves drained the swamp. The remaining old growth swamp forests are protected, but their fate is uncertain. With sea level rising, and the Mississippi Delta subsiding, there isn’t much chance of these ancient and magnificent forests making a comeback, or surviving into the next century.

This is a sad a little-known story of American forestry.  It would be nice to think that we do things better now, but whenever I go to Eastern Kentucky and see the devastation wrought by surface mining, I think perhaps we haven’t learned from our mistakes.

Here is another area of Louisiana devastated by pullboats and permanently converted to marshland.

Pullboat scars

Pullboat scars, lower Tangipahoa River. Google Earth, 30.354459, -90.275968

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