Louisiana's Holiday Tree Recycling Outlives State Budget Cut

New Orleans and nearby parishes plan to collect Christmas trees to build brush fences in bayous for marsh rebuilding this January even though the state decided to ax its funding for the program awhile ago. More than twenty years of holiday, tree recycling have taught south Louisiana residents about the coast's shrinkage and, experts say, spurred a recent effort to plant cypress-tree seedlings near waterways to protect soil.

This month, Garret Graves, chairman of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said "the decision to cut funding for the Christmas tree program was made more than a year ago based on recommendations from a government streamlining commission, with input from ten to twenty meetings that included the public, good government groups and legislators." Tree recycling, it was found, failed to yield meaningful results for the coast -- according to satellite imagery and other measures -- and was not the best use of resources for restoration, he said.

The state knifed $175,000 annually from the program, starting this winter, but Graves said his office will provide technical assistance to environmental and other groups and companies interested in recycling holiday trees. Trees that are not used in waterways won't necessarily end their days in landfill but can be chopped up by municipalities for mulch and other green products, he said.

Meanwhile, the city of New Orleans has made arrangements to continue its tree-recycling program. Ryan Berni, spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said "the city is collaborating with the state Dept of Wildlife and Fisheries and the National Guard to collect Christmas trees, while simultaneously aiding coastal restoration efforts. Trees will be banded and placed in identified marshes to promote restoration." The city plans to pick up discarded trees from January 6 to 11, and residents are asked to remove decorations and flocking before depositing them on curbs, he said.

Daniel Breaux, Lacombe-based refuge manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said "Bayou Sauvage Refuge plans on continuing its Christmas tree program this year using National Guard helicopters and trees collected by the city of New Orleans." And trees gathered in St. Tammany Parish will be used at Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, he said.

In past years, the Louisiana Air National Guard dropped Christmas trees in state waterways under its own training programs, which are separate from the state's former, tree-reuse program, Graves said.

Tom Beale, St. Tammany Parish spokesman, said his parish has a little money left from last year's budget to allocate to holiday-tree recycling this winter and will collect trees as usual. The parish will continue to seek ways to extend its tree-salvage program by securing grants and using more volunteers.

As in past years, St. Tammany's efforts at Big Branch Marsh will use trees to moderate tidal flow in eroded areas and collect sediment for the process of rebuilding marsh, Beale said. Air boats will be used to transport trees, which will be placed by hand in previously built, wooden structures in the water. He termed the project "a win-win, since it utilizes a readily available resource and educates and involves the public as well."

In Jefferson Parish, spokeswoman Patricia Borne said "we're looking into our options" for recycling holiday trees following a loss of state funding.

LSU AgCenter county agent Alan Vaughn in Belle Chasse said "the state's Christmas-tree recycling program did some good reclaiming land in bayous and marshes, but overall it was insufficient given the estimated, 50-square miles of land that Louisiana is losing every year." He said "the state's tree recycling program was one component in a multi-pronged approach to coastal erosion, and its biggest contribution was to involve the public in reclamation and raise awareness."

Polly Campbell, director of neighborhood initiatives for the St. Bernard Community Foundation, said her pre-Katrina, volunteer work of dropping trees by boat into bins into Bayou Bienvenue was a valuable learning experience. But, she said, the big emphasis in her parish now is on planting young cypress trees for storm protection. She noted, too, that expanded use of artificial Christmas trees, which are stashed in closets in January, has trimmed the number of curbside trees in recent years.

Vaughn said the state's Dept of Agriculture and Forestry is providing cypress and other seedlings to civic groups, home owners, scout troops and high schools, for planting on storm-prone and eroded land. "A group can purchase 1,000 small, bare-rooted trees from the state by filling out a form. In February, the state digs up the trees that were ordered, and delivers them to county offices for distribution." Hundreds of thousand of new trees have been planted in south Louisiana to replace millions lost in Katrina and other, recent hurricanes.

Wayne Burgess, LSU AgCenter extension and 4-H agent for St. Bernard Parish in Chalmette, said "a variety of groups and individuals has provided money to plant cypress seedlings or young trees in St. Bernard. We've been planting in Verret and Kenilworth, which are on the front lines for tidal surge, levee protection and high winds, and in 2011 we'll plant in Florrisant." In five to seven years, the young cypress trees should be 15-feet tall, providing a barrier against storms, he said.

Burgess continued, saying "St. Bernard Parish council member Fred Everhardt secured a grant from Apache Oil's tree grant program for 140,000 cypress seedlings last year," and Everhardt procured another 100,000 seedlings this year. Local civic leader "Tony Fernandez donated 5,000 to 10,000 seedlings, and helped coordinate volunteer efforts with Camp Hope and other groups to plant 150,000 trees," Burgess said. The parish government received a grant for 30,000 seedlings, while 4-H Clubs holding fundraisers purchased 10,500 two-year-old, cypress seedlings from the state Dept. of Agriculture.

Schools in St. Bernard Parish held their own seedling fundraisers, Burgess said. And plans are to pot first-year, cypress seedlings at Chalmette High School's greenhouse for planting later.

As for the decades-old, holiday-tree reuse program, Burgess said "it helped provide wave protection and allowed sediment growth. Given the pace at which South Louisiana is losing land, the program may have seemed like a drop in the bucket, but it gave us a chance to educate kids and got them and adults involved."

Burgess added that "since land erosion isn't going away, we need awareness, community participation and efforts to deal with it."

In New Orleans, Berni said questions about the city's tree-recycling program and ways to volunteer for it can be directed to the Mayor's Office of Coastal and Environmental Affairs by phoning 504-658-4070. He said "the city will be soliciting volunteers to aid in processing and banding trees, and they should be over 18-years old and able to lift 30 pounds."

(This article was published in the Dec. 13 edition of The Louisiana Weekly.)