NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - In the country's second largest urban wildlife refuge in New Orleans, elves wore National Guard uniforms Wednesday as helicopters latched onto bundles of trees and dropped them in open water.
"The aim of this project is to take a natural resource and use it on a natural resource," said Shelley Stiaes, refuge manager of the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.
Year 21 of the Christmas tree recycling program focuses on an area of marsh south of Highway 90 in Eastern New Orleans. For the guard, dropping 4,700 trees in bundles of 150 represents a training exercise.
"It's an excellent opportunity. Things that we normally don't get to do," said Chief Warrant Officer Gabriel Ruiz.
The guardsmen are able to simulate conditions they might encounter during an emergency, such as dropping sand bags during a flood.
"Once the pilot is over the load, we lose sight of it," Ruiz said. "We cannot see it anymore. So, it's constant communication between the crew member in the back and the crew up front."
This area of the refuge, within the hurricane levee protection system, might not bring coastal restoration to mind. However, like much of New Orleans and South Louisiana, Bayou Sauvage suffers subsidence. As land sinks below the surface of the water, larger and larger ponds form in the marsh, depriving subsurface vegetation of sunlight and limiting photosynthesis.
Refuge staffers explain that the trees cut down on wave action, trapping mud and allowing grasses to build up in the area.
"The overall objective is to slow down the wave energy and provide better habitat for these grasses to establish," said Pon Dixson, a refuge staff member.