Heart of Louisiana: Legacy Cypress

Heart of Louisiana: Legacy Cypress
Published: Nov. 10, 2015 at 8:05 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 10, 2015 at 10:37 PM CST
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ASCENSION PARISH, LA (WVUE) - In a state that celebrates its old live oak trees, a New Orleans man is searching for bald cypress trees that were standing at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. But finding the old aging giants is not easy. Dave McNamara takes us deep into a cypress swamp in Ascension Parish in a hunt for
legacy cypress in the Heart of Louisiana.

If you want to find the oldest cypress trees in Louisiana, you'll probably need to hike through woods or wade through a swamp. This is where the ancient trees have thrived for thousands of years until a century of logging wiped out virgin cypress forests.

"We got a registry for the live oak trees, but we haven't done much with these beautiful old cypress that we see pretty much representing this, and it is the official state tree after all," said Harvey Stern.

Stern is a man on a mission. The former New Orleans city planner wants to find the biggest cypress trees in each Louisiana parish.

"We know about the coastal cypress and the threats that they are under, but some of the most beautiful pockets of old-growth cypress are up in North Louisiana, Northeast Louisiana

In fact, the country's largest tree of any type east of California is a bald cypress tree near St. Francisville. The base of the tree is massive. It's 17 feet in diameter - the size of a lot of home living rooms. The champion tree is believed to be 1,500 years old and is part of the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Today, we're following Terry Matherne to a large tree he found on his property near the Amite River in Ascension Parish.

"I'd like to know what it was like when all of them trees like we are going to see were everywhere in here," Matherne said.

After eight years on the property, Matherne discovered a giant.

"Wow. I didn't think there is anything that big still in here," he said. "I wouldn't doubt there are still some more. Later on I get time, I'm going to walk some more in here."

First, a tape measure is stretched around the tree to measure its circumference. Then, using a hand drill, Stern pierces the bark and digs toward the center of the tree. He pulls out a core sample, with rings that mark every year of the tree's life.

"But if you see where my thumb is pointing here, you should be able to see some of those darker-colored marks on there," Stern said.

Stern counts 100 rings in a sample nearly 3 inches long.

"Simply counting the rings and extrapolating based on the size of the coring," he said.

Based on that, Stern estimates that this cypress is 700 to 1,000 years old. That earns the tree a plaque as a legacy cypress tree, Stern's designation for any tree that was here at the time of the Louisiana Purchase more than 200 years ago.

"I think we should care for anything that has survived the centuries, going back in many cases 1,000 years, 1,500 years I'm finding in some cases," Stern said.

And these old trees give us a hint of what Louisiana looked like when forests were crowded with these cypress giants. The Legacy Cypress Project depends on landowners to send in information on large trees. So far, they've found 200-year-old cypress in one-third of Louisiana's parishes.

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