New Orleans — The passing of Christmas Day brings the tree-recycling effort unique to southeast Louisiana, part of a multiparish endeavor where trees stripped of their decorations and collected — not for trash, but to be placed into the wetlands in hopes of slowing the rapid erosion of the state’s shoreline.
The instructions are the same: remove all ornaments, lights, tinsel and stands. And flocked trees cannot be recycled.
In Plaquemines Parish, President Billy Nungesser said that while the parish is still cleaning up from Hurricane Isaac, he debated scrapping the tree collection this year but decided it was more important than ever to engage residents in any effort to minimize damage to the coastline.
By securing trees in areas where the wave action is taking a heavy toll on the shoreline, Nungesser said, the trees give those shorelines “a fighting chance” by trapping sediment and encouraging revegetation.
The trees, typically built into fences or cribs, can be effective in slowing down the movement of the sediment, and can eventually build land behind the trees, Nungesser said.
But every storm that hits the coast sets any restoration efforts back, Nungesser noted, and Isaac was a significant setback.
Plaquemines Parish residents can also recycle used frying oil and wrapping paper this year. A leader in oil and gas production, Nungesser said, he also wants the parish to take the lead on recycling and green energy. “We can show we can do both,” Nungesser said.
In Orleans Parish, residents can recycle their Christmas trees by placing them on the curb on their regularly scheduled collection days within the dates of Jan. 10-12.
According to the city, the Department of Sanitation, the Office of Coastal and Environmental Affairs and the Materials Management Group will all assist in the collection, sorting and bundling of the trees, which will be placed in selected coastal zones.
The project in New Orleans, costing about $9,000, is funded by the general fund budget of the Office of Coastal and Environmental Affairs.
“New Orleans is earning a great reputation as an eco-friendly city, and this service is one of the ways our citizens can help protect and restore our environment,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a news release. “Together, we can save thousands of trees from being thrown out to waste and also provide critical support to help preserve our wetlands.”
But while trees may make a dent, Alex Kolker, an assistant professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, emphasized the need to focus on larger projects. Not to sound like a grinch, Kolker said, but “the small projects are just not going to do it.”
Jefferson Parish Director of Environmental Affairs Marnie Winters said that studies have shown that more land was built behind where there were recycled trees than in areas were there were not trees. “It definitely works,” she said, but added that it is labor intensive, and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources recently eliminated funding for tree-recycling projects throughout the state. Other sources of funding have also diminished in recent years, Winters said.
Jefferson Parish and St. Bernard Parish will team up this year to give more trees to Plaquemines Parish for a restoration project in Lake Hermitage, Winters said. They will also refurbish the existing “cribs” in Jefferson Parish that hold the trees, but there won’t be any new construction, Winters said.
As part of a pilot project in the parish, Winters said, some trees will also be turned into compost.
Jefferson Parish residents, including unincorporated areas, the town of Jean Lafitte, Gretna, Harahan, Kenner and Westwego, are advised to place trees curbside on the evening of Jan. 9. Garbage trucks will then collect trees in each neighborhood within the dates of Jan. 10-12.
Winters said that the parish is primarily concentrating on large-scale projects, some of which are coming closer to reality under the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act legislation, and also as a result of BP fines for damage caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
The trees may serve as an important reminder of disappearing coast, but Kolker said that with the recent momentum toward real restoration, it’s important to realize more is needed than simply putting trees on the curb.
“I don’t think people should have a false sense of making a big difference,” Kolker said.
If Christmas trees get residents thinking about the disappearing coast, he said, “we should also recognize the scale of the effort needed to restore the coast.”
However Kolker said that citizen engagement on any level — especially when it brings people out into the wetlands — should be encouraged. Anything that gets people physically out to the coast to learn more is a positive, Kolker said.
Winters also noted the value of the national attention, “an immense amount of good PR,” brought to the issue of land loss in Louisiana by more than two decades of recycling the trees.
Kolker urged capitalizing on the momentum that is out there and on large-scale projects as outlined in the 2012 Coastal Master Plan, including river diversions. “That’s where the emphasis needs to be,” he said.
Volunteers are needed on Jan. 12 in Goose Bayou near Jean Lafitte to move trees from a stage area to pre-constructed shoreline fences. Volunteers with shallow draft boats are especially needed. For more information or to volunteer, contact the Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs at (504) 731-4612.