Using Christmas Trees for Erosion Control

By Beacon Staff

Many different tactics are used in erosion control, but on the north shore of Flathead Lake one of the best options seems to be Christmas.

Mark Lorang, a research assistant professor for the University of Montana at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, heads an annual project in which Christmas trees are collected and then used to slow erosion in Flathead Lake and the lower Flathead River.

The trees are added to existing stumps, logs and gravel along the north shore and up the river inlet, where erosion has become a major concern, to stabilize the banks and decelerate the harmful effects of erosion.

“It’s a neat project,” Lorang said. “It’s in the order of thousands of trees – it’s a huge pile of trees.”

Chad Fincher of the Kalispell Parks and Recreation Department said the city works with a citizens group to collect Christmas trees from Kalispell residents. Collections will take place every Saturday Jan. 8 through Jan. 29. Fincher estimates about 2,500 are gathered annually.

Residents are asked to place their discarded trees in the boulevard area along the street where they can be seen and won’t be buried by snow. Tinsel, ornaments, tree stands and anything else unnatural should be removed. Fake trees aren’t accepted either. Fincher said tree collectors visit most neighborhoods at least twice.

“Make sure they’re visible, standing up,” Fincher said. “When we’re plowing they can get buried under the snow and then they’re not seen until spring.”

Reusing Christmas trees has benefits on multiple levels. For one, the trees have important environmental applications that address erosion, which has been known to strip large chunks of earth from the Flathead River’s lower banks. Last year, a commission was formed to explore erosion control methods along the river, particularly in the first 20 miles above the lake where the lake’s controlled water levels affect the river.

During the summer, the water level is high on that lower stretch of river. In the winter and spring, when the lake levels drop the river also falls significantly, exposing bare banks. All along the river, slouching banks serve as reminders of erosion’s strength.

Everything from abandoned cars to, more recently, strategically planted foliage has been used in erosion control. Now, for the past several years, discarded Christmas trees have proven to be an effective method along the north shore and lower river inlet. The method is used for erosion control in other parts of the country as well. In some instances, trees are submerged in water to be used for fish habitat.

In addition to the environmental benefits, Fincher said the partnership with Lorang also has advantages for the city. Previously, city employees would be tasked with chipping the collected trees to make material for landscaping projects. Furthermore, the landfill doesn’t get overloaded with Christmas trees.

“This is a lot easier on us because we’re not sitting there running trees through a chipper,” Fincher said. “We just take them to a storage area and then Mark loads them on trucks and takes them to his work area.”

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