This Holiday Tradition is Saving Louisiana’s Vanishing Coastline

Sergy Odiduro

Louisiana is home to the largest contiguous wetland system in the Lower 48 states and comprises 40 percent of all the wetlands left in the continental U.S. But oil and gas exploration, rising sea levels, levee construction, and natural coastal erosion are causing these natural areas to disappear, fast. Wetland loss in Louisiana equates to about one football field per hour.

But there is one unlikely source helping to preserve the Louisiana coastline: Christmas trees. In recycling programs utilized by many coastal parishes throughout the state, residents donate their old Tannenbaums to fortify vulnerable wetlands. Since the first program’s inception in 1991, more than 750,000 cut trees have been “planted” in the state’s bayous, circumventing landfills in the process.

A new life for old trees

Not only do coastal wetlands provide a habitat for a variety of wildlife, they’re also a measure of protection from hurricane and tropical storm surges. For low-lying areas like New Orleans, nearby wetlands help prevent flooding and other storm impacts by buffering winds and absorbing rain. As those natural barriers disappear, many residents in the state’s major metropolitan areas are left more vulnerable.

Even so, getting Louisianans involved in coastal restoration has been a challenge for environmental groups. “Coastal wetland improvement projects are not very visible,” said Cynthia Duet, deputy director of Audubon Louisiana. “You know, you just can’t walk around in your town and see coastal restoration at work.”

But in parishes participating in local Christmas tree collection programs, wetland restoration is as simple as dragging an unwanted tree to the curb.

“It provides a hands-on opportunity to contribute to the efforts of coastal restoration,” said Jason Smith, coastal programs supervisor for Jefferson Parish.

An idea from the Netherlands

The idea behind the project came from Louisiana State University’s Coastal Wetlands Institute, where scientists were experimenting with coastal restoration methods from the Netherlands.

The Netherlands “had completely destroyed their wetlands,” said Robert Thomas, one of the scientists who worked with the group. As part of a restoration project, the Netherlands developed a labor-intensive method of weaving tree limbs together to help rebuild the wetlands’ underwater framework of soil, roots, and tree trunks.

“Somebody in the group suggested that instead of weaving individual limbs, a Christmas tree might be the solution,” said Thomas who now heads up the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University New Orleans. “It’s already a big bundle [of tree limbs]. All you have to do is pick up the tree and stick it.”

The collected trees are bundled on their side and dropped into the area. Once placed, the trees create a fence around vulnerable areas, slowing down wave action and trapping sediment, which encourages more trees and plants to grow and reconstitute the marsh. As the trees trap sediment, restoration workers supplement the “fence” by planting marsh grass adjacent to the trees, according to Pon Dixson, the deputy project leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who helps oversee the program.

The gift that keeps on giving

Since beginning in Orleans Parish, Christmas tree recycling has grown to include five parishes, which collect and distribute the trees to local wetlands—most projects are within the Mississippi River delta. In some cases, volunteers run the programs entirely, picking up Christmas trees from a designated drop-off point and bringing them to the restoration area via boat. In larger parishes like Orleans, the Louisiana National Guard steps in, using Blackhawk helicopters to place tree bundles where severe erosion has already occurred, like the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, an area where levee building caused substantial wetland damage. In 2016, nearly 5,000 Christmas trees were recycled in Bayou Sauvage alone.

The program has another big environmental benefit—reducing landfill use. Without recycling them in the wetlands, thousands of trees would end up in garbage dumps, creating another problem for the state. The swampy topography makes having a local landfill impossible for many cities in Louisiana that are almost entirely surrounded by water. Instead, trash (including big old Christmas trees) is shipped to other areas’ landfills or buried outside city limits on dry ground, often at a high price for local municipalities.

“Take a city the size of greater New Orleans, think of the volume of Christmas trees. It’s enormous,” said Thomas. “Orleans [Parish] has no place to put its garbage in the city … so they always have to contract with someone outside. [The Christmas tree program] diverts these huge fees for burying garbage.”

The program has been a boon to both the wetlands and coastal restoration awareness. And it’s ability to help solve local waste management issues have proponents like Thomas hoping for greater funding from government sources—many parish programs currently rely on private donations to maintain operations. The programs’ results, Dixson said, have been undeniable. “It works like a charm. You have to see what we’ve accomplished with just a used Christmas tree.”