Alabama to Get New Marine Sanctuary?

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The steady drip drip of  news about the damage global warming is doing to marine environments, especially their corals, is bleak and depressing to this keen diver. I’m glad I saw the Great Barrier Reef before the latest rounds of warming – both under and above the water it’s a heart stopping spectacle.

I once spent about a month hanging out in Cooktown, in a part of Queensland that saw many Australian tourists, but attracted few foreign ones. In 1770, Captain Cook beached his bark, the HMS Endeavour, there and then had to figure out how to repair the damage the Great Barrier Reef had done to its hull.

One day I climbed to the top of the tallest hill and looked out at the Pacific, to see the pattern created by the reef. And realized Cook had probably done the same thing, no doubt several times in the seven weeks he spent int this place, seeing more or less the same ocean view. Despite an intervening 19th century gold rush – few signs of which other than some historic buildings were evident – I was able simply to enjoy the vista and get some sense of the extent of the reef. Cook’s thoughts were no doubt more troubled, dominated by the question – how the hell will I get out of this maze – even if he managed to repair his ship. Which he did – sailing away from this particular calamity.

Most marine news is depressing. The Guardian however featured a story last week, about the discovery of a sunken cypress forest off the coast of Alabama, ‘One of a kind’: calls to protect Alabama’s 60,000-year-old underwater forest. The forest is the only one of its kind known and is estimated to be 60,000 years old. So old that radiocarbon techniques are of no use in dating it.

Over to the Guardian:

Submerged below the waters are the remains of a cypress tree forest that grew 60,000 years ago, but was inundated by the Gulf of Mexico and preserved from decomposition beneath sediment. Nothing like Alabama’s underwater forest, in terms of age or scale, has ever been found.

Now efforts are under way to protect the expanse of tree stumps from exploitation by designating the site a marine sanctuary – some firms have sought to salvage the wood for commercial use – and to see if the underwater forest harbors new compounds for medicine.

After a hurricane uncovered the submerged forest, local divers brought the find to wider attention

It took giant waves driven by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 to exhume the forest from its seafloor grave. In 2012, environmental journalist Ben Raines went in search of the arboreal seascape after he was tipped off by a savvy source in the local diving community.

One of Raines’s articles about “swimming with dinosaurs” caught the attention of Kristine DeLong, a paleoclimatologist at Louisiana State University (and an avid scuba diver herself). She immediately called asking if she could carbon date some samples from the site.

After sending samples out to a colleague for dating, she received an email saying the trees were – to her surprise – ‘radiocarbon dead’. “Essentially, that means they’re older than 50,000 years,” DeLong said. “We did it three times to make sure.” She then turned to a team of geologists who collected core samples from the seafloor and confirmed the results.

With that, Raines and DeLong formed a partnership to extract as much knowledge from the site as possible while also preserving it. “From a scientific perspective, it’s a goldmine of information that we just don’t have access to anywhere else,” Delong says. She has worked with a cadre of scientists – from dendrochronologists to geologists and marine biologists – using only non-invasive instruments to collect rare information on Ice Age-era climate, rainfall, insects and plants.

The forest’s bald cypress trunks are teeming with life, including shipworms – types of clams that like munching on wood so much they’re known as the “termite of the sea”. Researchers are collecting these and other marine creatures from the depths to study their chemical potential to produce life-saving medicines on the surface.

Alas, at one time – incredible as this now seems – it looked like salvage companies might log the ancient forest, and turn its 60,000 year-old timbers into coffee tables, curiosities for those without any sense: of how rare and special these ancient logs are. An Alabama Republican House member, Bradley Byrne introduced legislation that would make the forest site as a marine sanctuary before leaving office earlier this month:

But the site is at risk from salvage companies seeking to dig up the ancient logs and sell them. According to DeLong, the army corps of engineers had received a permit request in 2020 from a furniture company seeking to salvage wood from the site.

With a wealth of potential information and research, it’s no wonder scientists have worked for years to stop the valuable 50,000-year-old wood from becoming high-end coffee tables. In October, a Republican representative from Alabama, Bradley Byrne, proposed the creation of a national marine sanctuary encompassing the ancient underwater forest.

“The underwater forest is another unique Alabama gem with global importance. As the only known site where a coastal ice age forest this old has been preserved in place, we must take action now to protect it,” Byrne said in a statement when he introduced the bill.

“This is a one of a kind natural wonder, like Yellowstone national park, or the Grand Canyon,” Raines told in October. “ It should be protected from exploitation and saved for the American public, just like those amazing sites on land.”

Under this designation, the sunken forest would stay open to tourists, fishermen and research groups, but it would be protected rom logging, peat harvesting and other disruptive activities. Though Congress didn’t pass the underwater forest bill before Byrne left office earlier this month, he told NBC he’s very hopeful the next Congress will.

I hope some successor to Byrne’s legislation, the ALABAMA UNDERWATER FOREST NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY AND PROTECTION ACT – or something similar – is enacted soon. Doing so won’t do anything to save the many coral reefs global warming is destroying worldwide. But at least such a bill could make sure these 60,000 year-old trees don’t end up as someone’s coffee table.

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  1. David Mayes

    The latest from South Africa is that we have yet to purchase enough vaccine to start wide scale inoculations. Some few health care workers will get some vaccine starting at the end of January, but the rest of the country is in the dark about any planned roll-out. That doesn’t worry me personally, because I am hesitant to get the vaccine until there is more information about “side effects.” From what I understand, the trial testing to date has been rushed a lot. I am 79 with a so far untreated blood cancer.

    1. Rod

      hey david–you may want to copy your comment and post it under ‘Links’–where i believe you meant to place it ;-)
      but I agree that most of the World is– but the rest of the country is in the dark about any planned roll-out.

  2. John Zelnicker

    Thank you for this post, Jerri-Lynn.

    You should come to Mobile sometime, perhaps when the virus is better controlled, and dive the forest. I hear it’s an amazing sight to see.

    Ben Raines, the discoverer of the forest, is quite the explorer. He also was instrumental in finding what are believed to be the remains of the Clotilda, the last ship to bring slaves to the US. After several false starts, he finally found ship timbers in the shape of the Clotilda, in the right location, and the right age.

  3. Rod

    One man’s trash is another mans treasure.

    some firms have sought to salvage the wood for commercial use

    Which says to me they have assayed the site and found monetary potential already.
    The mindset of Mindless Commodification we all have been groomed to accept in the Big Tradeoff of all resources must stop.
    Anything, like Sanctuary, that advances that purpose of thwarting Commodification must be embraced however ancillary it may be to the direct causes of the Climate Crises.

    We, all affected by the Climate Crises(and who is not), must start dragging any and all debris we can find along this highway to climate purgatory onto the roadway to impede our Capitalist’s world and its henchmen’s momentum to climate destruction.

    Creating a Sanctuary for a dead forest that works toward that end seems appropriate to me.
    Need funding??–within The System??–then salvage a single treasure and commission those 10 or so ‘rare’ coffee tables and put the uniqueness up for auction (opening bid 1M min.–no commission on public services for the common good) to seed the management fund.

  4. Phacops

    Sinker logs from over 100 years ago have been harvested in the Great Lakes from the era when Michigan and Wisconsin were scalped bare. The forests and streams here have not even recovered to any semblance of their pre-logging state. I am weary of how easy it is to exploit nature to the detriment of its diversity. But, I need to consider my part in that as I have a banjo bridge that I use that came from the salvaged wood.

    I wonder how that amazing drowned Cypress forest has influenced the small ecosystem it is part of?

      1. Phacops

        support the protection of a unique and valuable area that may also advise us about our future . . . and watch what we support when we buy something.

  5. ambrit

    The house we lived in during “The Katrina Experience” was the mill owners house for a small lumber mill that, we are told, made a pretty decent living off of salvaging sinker cypress logs from the American Pearl River delta. The deep honey coloured wood was used on the walls and ceilings of the place, which is still there in a semi-ruinous state. I am told by a friend who plays stringed instruments that the sinker cypress would be perfect for high end musical instruments. Something about the tones such a slow grown and dense wood produces are preferred by afficianadoes of music.
    There will be a strong push by commercial interests to ‘open’ the sunken forest to exploitation. There are so many lucrative uses to which the ancient logs could be put.
    Never underestimate greed.

    1. Rod

      funny nobody is trying to salvage that Mill House for the same reasons–(easier dryland salvage too)

      waste not want not…

        1. ambrit

          Right on the money. Anyone who shows an interest in the house for ‘salvage’ purposes offers a ridiculously low, “give away” price. All others who were interested only wanted the land, and that cheap too.
          As I wrote elsewhere; do not underestimate the power of greed.

      1. Phacops

        I have a beautiful rustic dining room table constructed from old barnwood. It is a handsom piece and at the instigation of my spouse rebuilt the apron to allow the addition of some decorative copper tiles.

        Whatever happened to the old saw “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”?

        My wife is always looking to repourpose and revamp items before looking to consume something new.

        1. ambrit

          Alas, the old virtues have fallen into desuetude. People who value old things, for whatever reason, are ‘thin on the ground’ in the general population.
          An example from life.
          About fifteen years ago, Phyl attempted to sell some of her hand made, natural material door wreathes. To that end, we paid for a spot in the ‘Arts and Crafts’ section of the Fall Fair in a southern Mississippi county. The venue was well within driving range of the Gulf Coast. Phyl set her prices in the mid-range so as not to scare off custom. We’re talking Twenty to Twenty-five dollars per wreath. We spent the entire three day weekend at the Fair.
          We sold no wreaths the entire weekend. A lot of people expressed interest in the objects, but balked at the price point.
          Directly behind us, in it’s own tent was another wreath and ‘decorations’ booth. The wares there were, to be charitable about it, shiny, gaudy, junque. These items didn’t even rise to the status of ‘kitsch.’ That couple sold a lot of items. Their prices were equal to or higher than Phyl’s.
          The lesson we learned that weekend was the truth of the observation attributed to Barnum: “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public.”
          Stay safe, try to stay sane.

  6. The Rev Kev

    What a waste if it was logged out to become this year’s coffee tables for wealthy people only to be thrown out for next year’s fad. They act like Vogons. Left as it is, it could become a steady supply of money through tourism for Alabama but some people can’t help themselves. In one of his books, James A. Michener said that if a breeding pair of dinosaurs was discovered in some remote region, some sombitch from Texas would turn up claiming that he had the right to shoot the male.

  7. Rod

    Better values internalized would help.
    And more scrutiny of those who who try to sell values within our ‘free market of ideas’.
    And a lot of plain truth to guide decision making–In ‘Rod’s World’ this is part and parcel of the Curriculum starting with pre-K:

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