Flathead geomorphologist Mark Lorang approached PPL Montana and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about four years ago with an unconventional proposal: Instead of using concrete walls and rip-rap to control erosion on Flathead Lake's northern shoreline, why not employ a greener solution—specifically, discarded Christmas trees?
"I've been working on the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta down in California for quite a few years," says Lorang, a research assistant professor with the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station. "A guy down there uses Christmas trees, old orchard pear trees, brush...just to minimize the waves and the currents and trap sediment that the river brings down. It's nothing new. They've been doing this in Europe for decades."
Lorang's pitch proved successful, and citizens in Kalispell and neighboring communities have donated some 2,500 Christmas trees annually to the effort. Volunteers collected about 500 last weekend. This year alone, Lorang says, the trees have saved 10,000 yards of gravel that would otherwise have been used in the project. And the cost savings resulting from the recycling initiative are impressive.
"This job in '96 was I think bid with concrete seawalls at a little over $8 million," Lorang says, "and we'll get this whole project done for under $2 million."
PPL Montana, the project's financial backer, is required to stabilize the shoreline in question to mitigate the Kerr Dam's effects on wildlife habitat.
Lorang has worked closely with the Kalispell Parks and Recreation Department over the past four years, relying on the city to help with tree collection. Normally the city would recycle the trees for use in local landscaping, says Kalispell Parks Superintendent Chad Fincher. Lorang's project has provided a major cost savings for the city as well.
"We don't have a number to go with it, but the benefit to us is we don't end up having to chip all the trees or mulch all the trees," Fincher says, adding the work can put extreme wear on the city's equipment.
The erosion control project will be completed this year, Lorang says, and the need for Christmas trees will subsequently end, unless private landowners express interest in similar measures.