NEW ORLEANS (AP) - In Louisiana, Christmas trees aren't just for decorating and putting presents under. They're also being used to restore eroding coastal wetlands. Both oil and gas exploration and federal flood control measures have eroded about 1,500 square miles of coastal wetlands since 1930.
The state continues to lose about 30 square miles a year - nearly a football field every half-hour. Fixes, including river diversion projects meant to replenish the wetlands with silt, are estimated to cost in the tens of billions of dollars. State funding that used to help parishes with restoration projects has dried up and there is no immediate resolution in sight for lawsuits pending against oil and gas companies that ultimately could result in billions of dollars' worth of help.
So some of the state's parishes have taken matters into their own hands. For years, many of them, especially those along the coast, have been collecting and placing discarded Christmas trees in the marshes to provide barriers against the encroaching Gulf. "Coastal erosion is a big issue on people's minds," and one that has become even more pertinent in the wake of hurricanes in the area, said Jason Smith, coastal program supervisor for Jefferson Parish's Department of Environmental Affairs.
In addition to being a useful tool in the fight against coastal erosion, parish tree recycling "allows people to get involved, get hands on and help out," Smith said. There is little dispute that oil and gas activity has contributed to the erosion problem, but estimates vary on how much is caused by the industry-owned canals that crisscross the wetlands and how much by federal flood-control projects that send the Mississippi River's silt out into the Gulf rather than into the wetlands.
A state levee board's lawsuit against 97 oil, gas and pipeline companies over the erosion issue is wending its way through the court system.
It alleges that dredging and maintenance for oil and gas canals and pipelines has let in corrosive saltwater that has killed plants anchoring the wetlands and allowed waves to sweep away hundreds of thousands of acres of coastal land.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has criticized the lawsuit as a windfall for trial lawyers, while his coastal protection chief, Garret Graves, said the suit would undermine Louisiana's work with the oil and gas industries to rebuild wetlands. An association of state levee districts voted to oppose the lawsuit.
Yet two coastal parishes heavily dependent on the industry have filed lawsuits of their own raising similar issues. Meanwhile, each parish or community has been forced to come up with its own coastal restoration project since a state program that provided grants for such work ended several years ago. In Jefferson Parish, a portion of the Christmas trees collected will be placed in the marsh at Goose Bayou in Jean Lafitte.
The rest will be chipped and used for composting, Smith said. For the marsh project, Smith said they weave trees into five-foot "cribs" that are dropped into the bayous as barriers to help create land. Such projects help to keep trees out of landfills, said Bob Dillemuth, who handles special events and community outreach for the East Baton Rouge parish's recycling office. "There's no reason organic material should go into a landfill," Dillemuth said.
Over the past few years, the parish has collected more than 100 tons of Christmas trees, both for coastal restoration and more recently for making compost and mulch. Dillemuth's office still donates trees to other parishes that want to use them for coastal restoration.