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Christmas Trees to the Rescue



 Coastal wetlands of the world are in crisis.  On a global level, the primary cause for the demise of marshes and estuaries is worldwide sea level rise caused by the cyclical melting of the glaciers and possibly worsened by increased atmospheric temperature from human activities that are increasing the greenhouse effect.

 Louisiana has 40% of the coastal wetlands that exist in the U.S. lower forty eight, yet fully 80% of U.S. losses are occurring along her coastline.  Research has shown that between 1956-2000, Louisiana lost an average of 27 square miles of coastal marsh per year!  The reasons for such a extraordinarily high rate are many and complex and involve the deprivation of sediment to the deltaic land since the construction of flood-protection levees in the 1920's, the decrease of the amount of sediment in the river, the growth of the delta to the edge of the continental shelf, total control of the river, and a variety of practices in the wetlands that provided the nation with oil, gas, and navigation.

 Though the crisis has been identified and much study has revealed some of the causes, there no unified program in the late 1980s to resolve this situation.  As mitigation for wetland destruction throughout the LaBranche Wetlands in St. Charles Parish (just west of New Orleans), Louisiana, the parish's Coastal Management Section began a vigorous, multifaceted program.  As one component, a scientist at Louisiana State University's Coastal Wetlands Institute, Dr. John Day, began a project that proved successful.

It was known that during high tide and storms, much sediment was washed into the wetlands from adjacent Lake Pontchartrain.  Later, however, the sediment washed back into the lake and was lost to the wetlands.  Much thought was given to ways to capture the sediment that is so vital to productive marsh growth.  Modeled after a project in Holland, Dr. Day suggested using fences of woven willow limbs to capture the sediment.  The fences worked in two ways:  1.  They acted as barriers to the sediment as the water washed through and over them as it returned to the lake.  2.  By their mere presence, they stabilized the motion of the water around them, thus allowing the sediment to settle out of suspension.  As the water became shallower with the accumulation of more and more sediment, marsh vegetation began to grow and the ecosystem was enriched.

 Placing poles in the marsh, cutting thousands of limbs from willows, and interweaving the limbs was a laborious, time-consuming task, not to mention that the work had to be done in February!  A conversation over coffee among Dr. John Day, Allen Ensminger, and Dr. Bob Thomas about other sources of fencing material focused on Christmas trees that have dense, sturdy limbs and decay slowly.  As discussion ensued, a coalition was designed to accomplish the project.  The Louisiana Nature & Science Center (LNSC) publicized the project and informed the public that they could be players in solving Louisiana's coastal erosion dilemma by donating their discarded trees.  LNSC then got American Waste and Pollution Company involved, through Mr. Bob Francis, to pick up the trees in a prescribed zone and deliver them to a holding area donated by the James Business Park.  At the same time, the St. Charles Parish Coastal Management Section, staffed by Gretchen Hebert Binet, collected trees from their local residents.  During the holiday season of 1988, nearly 7,000 trees were collected.  A few weeks later, a contractor hired by the Louisiana Office of Coastal Restoration, under the direction of Dr. Bill Good, moved the trees to the LaBranche Wetlands and constructed the fences designed by LSU ecologists.  The implementation of the project was overseen by Mr. Milton Cambre, a local environmentalist who was hired by Ms. Binet's office due to his many years of untiring devotion to saving his parish's wetlands.

 There are three wonderful aspects to this project.  One, it was a team effort including the public (St. Charles Parish and state government), private (American Waste, James Business Park, and the contractor), not-for-profit (Louisiana Nature and Science Center) sectors, and university scientists (led by Dr. John Day).  Two, the project helped with two very important environmental problems:  a)  rampant wetlands erosion; and, b)  landfills being overburdened with Christmas trees.  Three, it is one of the few times that individuals have been able to contribute directly to the solution of environmental problems.  Many families arrived at the collection point and remarked that they drove the distance because they simply wanted to do their part.  What a wonderful expression!

 Another not-for-profit group joined the effort in 1989.  The Young Leadership Council (YLC), under the guidance of its Environmental Committee Chair, Lennie Wormser, tagged trees on Christmas tree sales lots, thus encouraging people to get involved by insuring that their trees be made available for the project (PIP Printing donated the printing costs).  Since YLC is truly a "hands-on" organization, its members volunteered their time to help American Waste with the collection of trees. 

 By the early 1990s, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources was coordinating grants to any parish government that wanted to operate its own Christmas tree program.  Jefferson Parish has one of the most high profile programs that is still operating today. 

 Christmas trees have been used for a number of years in a similar fashion to encourage sand dune formation on beaches.  Successful programs have occurred on Long Island, New York; Gulf Shores, Alabama; and Galveston, Texas.  By placing the trees on the beach in the dune area, the tree's limbs stop blowing sand and eventually become covered, thus functioning as the nucleus for the stabilizing dune line.

 Aside from the obvious wetlands enhancement, the Christmas tree program has another very important environmental component.  Before this program, virtually all Louisiana Christmas trees made their way to landfills – being very expensive to dispose of and occupying a huge amount of valuable (and dwindling) landfill volume.  By putting the trees in our eroding wetlands, we save America’s WETLAND and conserve landfill space.