Yuletide to beach side: Christmas trees help arrest erosion

Discarded trees take on new lives as homes for birds, guideposts for snowmobilers, and sand snaggers to rebuild dunes.

Almost every sunny weekend, Carlina Schubert comes to the beach to surf, shoot off firecrackers with friends, or help her mom collect shells.

Now, the high school senior is spending one really wet weekend dragging withered Christmas trees across the beach in an effort to protect it. In a matter of weeks, wind-swept sand trapped in these old trees will create desperately needed dunes, protecting the beach from erosion and the nearby homes from being swept away.

It's one of the many ways communities are recycling the remains of the millions of trees discarded after Christmas gifts are unwrapped and eggnog polished off.

As more Americans celebrate with fake trees in an effort to protect the environment and stave off a carpet of Christmas-tree needles, tree growers are becoming more vocal about the ecological benefits of real trees - especially the benefits that come post presents.

While they grow, advocates say, real trees stabilize soil and provide refuge for wildlife. But even after they're toppled, they can be used in an increasing number of ways.

The most common of those is mulching: Towns collect the trees and grind them up for use in gardens, parks, or zoos. But communities with specific needs are using them more creatively.

In Louisiana, for instance, discarded trees are used to build underwater fences along barge canals, helping preserve freshwater marshland areas. In addition, they protect the Louisiana coastline from salt-water intrusion.

In other states, the trees are piled around watering holes to provide shelter for birds, or sunk into lakes and ponds to make refuge and feeding areas for fish. In Michigan, trees are first laid on frozen lakes to guide snowmobilers before sinking to the bottom when spring arrives and the ice melts.

And here along the Gulf of Mexico coast, they are staked together in long rows, a skeleton for new dunes.

"This is the least expensive and the best solution to our problem," says Denise Grier, supervisor of special events at the Brazoria County Parks Department. "And people are getting twice the benefit out of these trees."

On this drizzly cold day, some 200 volunteers from around the area showed up to help "plant" the Christmas trees along the vegetation line. Thousands of donated trees - some with ornaments and lights still attached - were defrocked and spread along 21 miles of beach.

There have never been too many trees or too many volunteers, says Ms. Grier, who puts up an artificial tree because she doesn't like to "cut down trees."

Two of the volunteers are Paul Hora and Corbette Hoenninger, who belong to the Texas Outrigger Canoe Club. They come to this beach frequently to drop their canoes in, and today they wanted to be part of the preservation efforts.

"We figure it's our responsibility for using the beach," says Mr. Hora, as rain drips from his Australian outback hat. In addition to helping plant, Hora also donated his dried-up Christmas tree. He and Mr. Hoenninger - who's used the same artificial tree for eight years - have spent the morning lashing trees together and staking them down to keep them from blowing or washing away.

Dunes are critical to beach areas, says Brazoria County marine agent Rich Tillman, because they protect the homes and roads built along the coast.

"Shorelines erode naturally over time; the sand is washed away and deposited elsewhere. But if we didn't have structures down there, most people wouldn't notice that the beaches were 100 feet less than last year," he says.

The "Dunes Day" program has been in existence for more than 20 years, with good results. After Hurricane Alicia ripped through in 1983, county officials found that Christmas trees had saved many parts of the beach - and saved the county at least $1 million in road repairs.

Since then, trees have protected the shore as three tropical storms and one hurricane have crashed inland. "I like to say that we are building up our sand account so that when these storms do come, the dunes can be our first line of defense," says Mr. Tillman.

In 2002, 22.3 million people bought real Christmas trees and 93 percent of those surveyed said they recycled their tree in one of these local programs, according to the National Christmas Tree Association in St. Louis.

"People are beginning to realize that real Christmas trees are a benefit to the environment from the time they are planted until well after the holiday season," says the association's Rick Dungey.

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