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Best of NAMA 2023

Few things look more forlorn after the holidays than a dry Christmas tree at the curb waiting to be recycled into mulch or chips. But once consumers discover the potential of that dead tree, curb appeal takes on new life.

In Louisiana, a Christmas tree's recycled use lasts well beyond the holidays. Dead trees in the Bayou State are placed in fenced areas along the coastline to protect marshes through prevention of saltwater intrusion, enhanced sedimentation and preservation of aquatic habitats.

"There is life in dead trees," says Clarke J. Gernon, Sr., Shady Pond Tree Farm, Pearl River, La. "If the 35 million trees raised for Christmas each year were all chipped into garden mulch, we'd have too much mulch. The program in Louisiana is successful because it provides another environmental use for recycled Christmas trees."

The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Coastal Restoration Project began about a decade ago and was recognized this year by the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) as the top tree recycling effort.

Twelve Louisiana parishes participate in the marsh restoration effort, although the largest, Jefferson Parish, was the recipient of the NCTA recycling award.

"This all got started for Shady Pine Tree Farm with a field of trees that needed to be cleared about 10 years ago. The Louisiana DNR was interested in coastal restoration, so we gave the trees to the parish to test the project," says Gernon, who adds the coastal restoration project was modeled after a similar one in the Netherlands.

Gernon says the dead trees are taken into the coastal marshes to the man-made canals, which are left from oil and gas drilling operations. Fences are constructed at the ends of the dead-end canals, and Christmas trees are laid on top of each other to fill the canals. Once in place, the trees slow the water velocity and sediment begins to build.

"In Jefferson Parish alone, 60,000 trees were moved over a two-day period," he says. "During the last 10 years, nearly 38,000 feet of fence have been constructed in marshes and nearly one million trees have been placed. That is a lot, but there are 4.1 million acres of marsh along the Louisiana border we could restore."

Carl Wegner, NCTA's Environmental Concerns Committee Chair, praises the Louisiana effort. "Publicly exalting communities and solid waste management companies that have superb recycling programs reinforces the message that one of the most valuable environmental benefits of a real tree is that it can be recycled back into nature," he says.

Gernon agrees, noting that communities have always pressured Christmas tree growers and users to find ways to recycle trees rather than place the trees in landfills. "It is not convenient for garbage haulers to pick up trees," he says. "The Louisiana project provides a solution to that problem while addressing the complicated issue of coastal erosion. That makes it all worthwhile."

The NCTA has found other benefits to offering and publicizing an annual recycling award. "By promoting recycling efforts, our industry tries to convince a greater number of environmentally-conscious consumers to choose real Christmas trees over artificial ones," says Wegner. "Recycling issues are hot buttons because consumers, by a two-to-one margin, still believe artificial trees are better for the environment than real trees. Few consumers understand yet that Christmas trees are grown as a crop and do not come from the forest."

NCTA adds such environmental messages to news releases they distribute to their award winners. The releases are coauthored with the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), and include examples of recycling programs around the country.

"We share the news releases with the media and also have them on the media section of our website,," says Wegner. "We include copies of our environmental press releases in media kits sent to our members, too, so that members can add local information to the news items and get them into the hands of local media contacts."

Wegner sums, "We want consumers to understand as a biodegradable, all-natural product, real trees are recycled in many different ways. Louisiana marshland preservation is one of those really creative ways." AM


Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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