New Orleans is a city that has long marched to the beat of a different drummer — a flamboyant, fabulously attired and slightly inebriated drummer.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then that the age-old tradition of the Big Easy doing things its own special way extends to Christmas tree disposal.
That said, New Orleans doesn’t necessarily deviate from other major cities when it comes to the collection of thousands upon thousands of de-tinseled fir trees. Per the Department of Sanitation, residents of Orleans Parish are asked to place their old trees — stripped of all ornamentation, of course — curbside on regularly scheduled trash pickup days. Nothing unusual with that. It’s what happens next, after the trees are collected and spirited away by sanitation workers, that’s unique.
Unlike a large — and steadily increasing — number of municipalities that convert Christmas trees into compost by way of industrial-sized mulching machines, tossed-out Tannenbaums in the historic Southern city are treated to a typically — and, in this case, literally — splashy send-off. And it’s a splashy send-off that just happens to involve the assistance of the Louisiana National Guard.
As is custom over the past 15-plus years, the city's Office of Coastal and Environmental Affairs in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Louisiana National Guard's 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 244th Aviation Regiment, will oversee an annual “Christmas Tree Drop” later this spring using trees collected through New Orleans' post-holiday curbside pickup program.
The discarded trees, sorted and bundled by the Department of Sanitation and its contracted waste haulers, will be airlifted and deposited via UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. To the surprise of many, this 23,000-acre swath of gator-infested swaps and coastal forest is located completely within New Orleans city limits, making it the largest urban wildlife refuge in the United States.
The purpose of strategically plunking thousands of long-dead holiday trees into a massive marshland complex is rather straightforward: to generate new and vital wetland habitats for waterfowl and other types of wildlife. Acting as natural jetties when deposited in open ponds, the Christmas tree bundles trap sediment and, in the words of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, help in “building up a plantable structure, which will eventually support native marsh grasses." It's these marsh grasses that help support the refuge's sizable avian population.
Roughly 175 acres of marsh has been re-established at Bayou Sauvage since the annual initiative first kicked off.
Elaborates the FWS:
Most of the freshwater marsh that makes up the refuge is contained within hurricane and flood-protection levees. What was once historically a wetland system that benefited from natural sediment deposits has been walled in.
Through this innovative and partnered project new land can be created in these areas. Bayou Sauvage is one of the largest urban refuges in the country and for migratory birds marks one of the last stops before hitting open water.
In a recent press release, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu emphasizes that the city’s Christmas tree recycling program allows residents to pitch in and contribute to crucial coastal restoration efforts without really lifting a finger. (Well, they technically do have to lift a finger while hauling the godforsaken things to the curb):
As a coastal city, we must all take restoration seriously. This service is an easy way for our residents to help protect and restore our environment. We can now use the trees that are typically thrown out as waste as an opportunity to provide critical support to help restore our wetlands and continue to build the resilience of our natural environment.
Last year alone, nearly 7,000 cast-off trees were deposited at Bayou Sauvage. As noted by the National Wildlife Federation, it's not just migratory birds that benefit from the annual tree-dropping bonanza ... the National Guard considers the event to be an official training exercise.
And Orleans Parish isn’t the only coastal Louisiana parish that’s in the habit of depositing old Christmas trees in wetland areas in lieu of mulching (or landfilling) them. As part of a volunteer-organized tree-cycling scheme in Jefferson Parish, some, but not all discarded Christmas trees collected are used in marsh restoration projects at Goose Bayou. Terrebonne Parish, St. John the Baptist Parish and St. Charles Parish all offer coastal restoration/protection-minded tree recycling programs as well.
This all said, if you happen to be visiting New Orleans in the coming weeks for Mardi Gras and spot a large military helicopter overhead that's heading east and carrying what appears to be a bundle of dead Christmas trees, rest assured it's not your eyes playing tricks on you after three too many frozen daiquiris.