This time of year, when the remaining needles are brittle and brown and the colored lights have been packed in the attic for months, most once-live Christmas trees are buried in the compost heap or long since ground into mulch.
But at three local beaches, the evergreens that quickly start to lose their appeal after Dec. 25 have taken on new value and purpose as a kind of natural Band-Aid for battered dunes. At Mitchell Beach in New London, Waterford Town Beach and Old Black Point Beach in East Lyme, dozens of discarded Christmas trees lay at the tops and waterside edges of dunes flattened by Superstorm Sandy, capturing new sand and helping hold what was left after the storm.
"This is a great way to reuse a natural resource," said Joshua Altshuler, a sophomore environmental studies student at Mitchell College, as he and two other students walked along Mitchell Beach Friday. "We were very disappointed with the loss of these dunes and wanted to find a way to restore them."
In January, a group of student volunteers erected snow fencing and laid about 40 trees end-to-end along the dunes. Victoria Brennan, chemistry professor at Mitchell and advisor to the student environmental club that provided some of the volunteer labor, said the evergreens came from the unsold stock of Steward's Christmas Tree Farm in Quaker Hill.
"We kind of ran out of trees," Brennan said, pointing out a bare section at the south end of the beach where there is fencing but no tree buttress along the edge. "But this will give us a way to do a control study" to compare how different sections rebuild.
After 2½ months, she noted, the trees already are partially buried in sand, evidence that the technique is working.
Dunes prevent flooding
Harry Yamalis, environmental analyst at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said he recommended using the discarded Christmas trees when communities sought advice after the storm.
"You place them where you want the dune to form, or where it's been historically," he said.
The technique was first employed in coastal North Carolina several years ago, he said. After Sandy, it was adopted by several beach communities along the East Coast.
Dunes are critical for stabilizing beaches and preventing inland flooding, and storms that truncate them are as much a part of natural processes as the gradual accumulation of sand that builds them up, he said. While the trees will help that natural process along, he said, visitors should take extra care this beach season to stay off the dunes.
"They will never recover if people keep walking on them," he said.
At Waterford Town Beach, additional signs telling visitors to keep off the dunes will be erected soon, said Maureen FitzGerald, the town's environmental planner.
"We're waiting for the sand to come back," she said. "People who come to the beach this summer are going to notice a lot of the dune is gone."
A new era
Sandy tore two large openings between the barrier beach and Alewife Cove that town officials feared would cause a major loss of usable area if not repaired. Using an emergency permit from DEEP, town crews scooped sand thrown into the cove back into the breached areas, then placed the Christmas trees and fencing. A footbridge between the cove and the beach also was repaired.
Later this month, Nature Conservancy volunteers will help the town plant about 1,000 plugs of dune grass to further stabilize the areas, said Brian Flaherty, director of parks and recreation.
"Our main goal was to get it open for the public again," he said.
The conservancy's involvement in Waterford beach is part of an effort to promote "resilient conservation and restoration" at dynamic coastal areas that are facing the effects of more frequent, intense storms, said Adam Whelchel, director of science at The Natural Conservancy.
"We're kind of in a new era in conservation," he said. "As these systems get restored, there should be some monitoring so we can measure the effectiveness of these systems."
While Mitchell and Waterford beaches have completed post-storm restoration projects, work is still going on at other local beaches. In East Lyme, the town is planning repairs to the McCook Point Park parking lot, which was undermined by storm surge, along with other work, town engineer Victor Benni said. The work should be done by Memorial Day, he added.
At Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme, repairs to the boardwalk will not be completed for this season, but the beach will be open on time, said Tom Tyler, director of state parks at DEEP.
Dunes damaged by the storm have not been restored, but park crews did clear numerous downed trees. The storm moved tons of sand into a culvert that channels Bride Brook through the eastern end of the beach. The brook is an important passage for alewife that migrate to Bride Lake to spawn. Permits to clean out the culvert and move the sand are being sought.