La. drops use of Christmas trees to save coast

Published 4:36 am Sunday, December 5, 2010

The tough economy is putting the ax to an annual act of collective preservation in Louisiana: A state program to bundle used Christmas trees and place them in the marsh to help shore up the state’s crumbling coastline.

Since 1991, the state has collected more than 1.5 million Christmas trees from street curbs and drop-off sites and built fences meant to trap sediment, stop erosion and even build land.

The program has done little to stop erosion, and the state, facing huge budget deficits, felt it could be cut.

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Supporters said recycling Christmas trees was a way to get people engaged in the state’s dire land loss crisis. Since the 1930s, the state has lost about 2,100 square miles of coast, an area bigger than Delaware.

“It was a cool way to connect people to the coast,” said Colleen Morgan, who runs Bayou Rebirth, a New Orleans volunteer group that seeks to restore the coast with plantings. “And kids loved it. Kids were so excited to go out and throw Christmas trees in the marsh.”

Under pressure to streamline budgets in these tough times, the state has cut the $175,000 program this year, said Garret Graves, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief aide for coastal affairs.

He said the cut was proposed by a commission set up in 2009 to streamline government and approved by the Legislature.

The program didn’t get much land for the money, which now can be used for better restoration programs. State officials have said the program saved or protected about 250 acres since it started — less than half a square mile.

Scientists agree that it has not saved a lot of land.

“We’re never going to save the coast with Christmas trees,” said Denise Reed, a coastal scientist at the University of New Orleans.

Reed said the technique was adopted from the Dutch, who use brushwood to trap sediment. But with less sediment in the Louisiana coast than in the Netherlands, vegetative barriers are not that effective here. Hurricanes tend to chew up the Christmas tree fences, she said.

However, Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club’s New Orleans chapter pointed out another benefit: “If we’re not recycling Christmas trees we’re filling up the landfills.”