It may seem like a Christmas tree no longer serves a purpose once the twinkling lights and delicate ornaments have been removed from its prickly branches. But environmental groups throughout southeast Louisiana believe that a bare Frasier fir plays a vital role in the fight against coastal erosion.

This January, when select parishes participate in the Christmas tree recycling program, environmentalists will collaborate with city officials in an effort to protect the Louisiana wetlands. Discarded trees — free of embellishments — will be bundled, airlifted and dropped into the marsh, where water is swallowing new sections of land.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Louisiana launched their program about 20 years ago, said Shelley Stiaes, the refuge manager of the Bayou Sauvage Urban National Wildlife Refuge, which is located within Orleans Parish.

“When the ground is sinking, small bodies of water get deeper,” Stiaes explained. “When the water gets deeper and the wind blows, the wave action beats against the shoreline. That causes the body of water to get larger, because it's eating away at the shoreline.”

Part of the Bayou Sauvage refuge is surrounded by hurricane protection levees.

“We are one of the lines of protection for the City of New Orleans, because we’ll take on the water so that the city won't have to,” said Stiaes.

When creating the program, Stiaes and her colleagues wanted to find “a way to mitigate the loss of habitat.” The group decided to place plywood cribs, filled with Christmas trees, into the marsh and give them time to “establish,” so that vegetation could grow on and around them.

They later teamed up with the Louisiana Air National Guard, who offered to lift the trees and drop them into the marsh — usually in between islands that have been broken up by water. The Guard uses the tree drop as an opportunity to run disaster relief drills.

“By dropping those trees there, you can see the difference in the calmness of the water inside (the tree barrier), versus the outside,” said Stiaes.

The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana then places marsh plants, like bulrush or spartina, right behind those trees, so that the plants have an opportunity to flourish.

The tree jetties also provide a habitat for fish, crabs, and shrimp, because the network of branches keeps critters safe from predators.

“It's a perfect nursery to bring up the next generation of aquatic wildlife,” said Stiaes.

In Orleans Parish, the Office of Resilience and Sustainability runs the recycling project. The Department of Sanitation collects unadorned, natural Christmas trees from curbsides — not the neutral ground — after King's Day, and brings them to a site in New Orleans East, known as Recovery One.

Last year, the city collected nearly 15,000 trees, said Stiaes.

“When you think about it, that's nothing compared to how many people live in New Orleans,” she said. “I think tinsel is the culprit, because it's a lot of work to take off.”

Jefferson Parish residents are encouraged to follow similar guidelines. The trees cannot be painted or flocked. They must be real, and free of adornments and the wooden stand, which often contains metal nails.

“We specify a pickup time in January, with the instructions that residents need,” said Lauren Avellis, the head of the Coastal Restoration Department for Jefferson Parish, where the tree-recycling program is a collaboration between the Environmental Affairs Department and the Coastal Department.

The bundled trees are placed into constructed shoreline fences in Goose Bayou, near Lafitte.

“You can get a lot of wave action within that waterway. When the waves hit that crib with those trees, it slows the waves down and, in turn, protects the marsh from erosion,” said Avellis. “Whenever you are saving or buffering the marsh, it not only helps the marsh from eroding but also creates and maintains a habitat.”

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Pickup/Drop-off Details

Jefferson Parish: Christmas trees are collected curbside throughout unincorporated Jefferson Parish, Gretna, Harahan, Kenner, Lafitte and Westwego on Jan. 11-13. (Any residents interested in volunteering, especially with shallow draft boats, should contact the Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs at 504-731-4612.)

Terrebonne Parish: Place Christmas trees in usual garbage pickup site from Jan. 3-5, or drop off trees at any of the following TPCG locations: 263 Ashland Landfill Road in Houma; 651 Isle of Cuba Road in Schriever; 160 Crochetville Road in Montegut.

Southeastern Louisiana University: Drop off trees from Jan. 2 through Feb. 13, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Hammond Maintenance facility (18104 Hwy. 190).

The Southeastern Sustainability Center (2101 N. Oak St.) collects trees from Jan. 4-31, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Monday through Thursday), and 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Friday. A Turtle Cove trailer drop off site will be maintained at Middendorf’s Restaurant, beginning Jan 4.

Orleans Parish: Place trees curbside before 5 a.m. on second regular collection day between Jan. 11 and Jan. 13. If you live in the French Quarter or Downtown Development District, place your tree curbside before 4 a.m. on Jan. 11.