At the end of December and into first few days of January, the air is filled with the scent of pine and fir as businesses, individuals and towns face a collective holiday problem: what to do with their Christmas trees.

Real Christmas trees are grown as a renewable resource across the states. The demand for Christmas trees has made it viable to grow as a crop, keeping fields covered with acres of evergreens throughout the year that help prevent pollution from entering rivers and streams. When trees are harvested—most often Douglas and Fraser firs or Scotch and white pines—a new crop is planted to grow up in its place.

Each year we go through thousands of Christmas trees, but few know what happens to them once the season ends. On Poplar Island in Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, they may just become warm nesting habitat for black ducks.

The Poplar Island complex is seen looking south from the air c. Aug. 1994. Fourteen years later, Poplar island is seen looking north on June 5, 2018. (Photos by Craig Koppie/USFWS and Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Reconstructing Poplar Island

In the 1600s, Poplar Island was a sturdy island of more than 2,000 acres located just off the coast of Tilghman Island, Maryland. Rapid erosion caused the loss of roughly 13 feet per year, eating away at the land mass until its shifting sands were dispersed to the water and scattered throughout the Bay. By 1990, Poplar Island was an insignificant shoal of less than 10 acres.

While Poplar Island was losing land, the Port of Baltimore, about 50 miles north, had more than it could handle. The port brings in billions of dollars in revenue and tens of thousands of jobs to the state of Maryland, but to remain economically viable the port and its approach channels must stay deep enough to support those ships.

Islands in the Bay can lose their sands to the pull of the tides, and upstream soil can come down rivers from farms and developments. That dirt and soil must go somewhere, and that new location is often the shipping channels. You won’t see it by looking at the water’s surface, but we are losing substantial water habitat as our waterways get shallower from sediment buildup. Left to grow, this additional sediment can cause shipping traffic to come to a complete stop and alter habitat for plants and animals that live in the waterway.

Because excess sediment can stop traffic at one of the East Coast’s largest ports, the Port of Baltimore works with the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channels of sediment and keep them deep enough for the large tankers that come through. However, that excess sediment needs a new home, and this is where Poplar Island comes in.

The Paul S. Sarbanes Ecological Restoration at Poplar Island is a joint effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Environmental Service, Maryland Port Administration and Maryland Department of Transportation. Sediment material dredged out of Baltimore Harbor is piped onto Poplar Island, where it is shaped to create wildlife habitat.

With the dredged material from the joint project, Poplar Island today is well over 1,000 acres. By 2027, the goal of the project will have Poplar Island at 735 acres of wetland, 840 acres of upland habitat and 140 acres of open water habitat.

March 2012: Biologists with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office show us how the agency is using recycled Christmas trees to create bird nesting habitat at Poplar Island, a restored island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay

Creating habitat from Christmas trees

Today, biologists study the environment alongside ongoing dredge construction. “Everything you walk on was created,” said Chris Guy, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “None of it was here in 1990.”

Shorebirds, saltmarsh periwinkles and underwater grasses are flourishing on the island. With the help of another partnership with Easton Public Works and the Christmas trees of area residents, black ducks receive cozy Christmas nests for the new year.

The Christmas tree project began in 2005, with roughly 250 trees added to the island as habitat. Residents of Easton, Maryland put their trees out for pickup on the curb, and the Department of Public Works brought them to Tilghman Island. There, commercial fishermen helped haul the trees out on the workboat, making two eight-mile trips to Poplar Island.

The purpose of the trees is to create new nesting sites for birds. Biologists create a mound on the land by placing the trees so that they will build up over time. The biologists create small cavities in the trees to act as ready-made nests. Black ducks, a species that has been declining due to habitat loss, use Poplar Island and the Christmas trees as new nesting sites.

The island is manufactured, so it will take many years for planted trees to mature and provide the kind of cover needed by other wildlife. The recycled Christmas trees provide needed habitat for cover and nesting.

In 1990, only 10 species of birds visited Poplar Island. Since the restoration began, more than 170 bird species have been recorded on the restored island, with many choosing to nest there. Cattle and snowy egrets frequent the area while redwing blackbirds like to perch on the new tree branches. Little rodents like mice and voles like to hide out in the brush piles, building up the diversity of the ecosystem and making the Christmas tree a new all-weather home.

How to recycle your Christmas tree

Poplar Island is not the only location using trees for restoration. Check with your local county to see how trees are being used in your area. If your county is not using the trees, see if a Treecycle program is available nearby or find a local conservation organization that may use the trees.

Don’t limit your thinking to land! Christmas trees can make excellent underwater habitats when placed appropriately. Check with your local fish and game departments.

For those not quite ready to part with that evergreen tree smell, use the tree at home. Pines and firs are excellent for mulch and ground cover. Laying down a thin layer of branches makes a great base for compost piles, as the structure of the branches will help to create proper airflow. The branches themselves will break down over time and the needles of pine trees will decompose slowly, making an effective fertilizer or bedding for animals.

For crafty conservationists, think of your leftover Christmas tree as a brand-new medium. The thickness of the tree’s trunk lends itself well to wooden “cookies.” Try creating a wintery snowman scene with the discs or use them in your landscaping to line walkways or flower beds. If you are familiar with staining and sealing wood, sand down the cookies and finish them into rustic coasters.

While Christmas trees do lend a cheery pop to fires, you must be careful. Conifers can burn incredibly hot due to their sap and creosote, and needles can create sparks. Let your wood dry completely if you want to use it as firewood and restrict it to outdoors.

There are many ways to recycle Christmas trees, and each fresh-scented option will beget a new use for the new year.

Let us know how you plan to recycle your tree in the comments!

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