Athens, Ohio — Harvesting and decorating a live Christmas tree is a holiday tradition in millions of U.S. households. Equally important and beautiful traditions surround taking down the coniferous holiday icon to recycle it for a second life and purpose.
The Wayne National Forest in Ohio has a particularly creative Christmas tree tradition: recycling local communities’ live Christmas trees to build homes for fish.
“We’ve been doing this project for several years – at least as long as anyone who works here can remember” said Ashley Kuflewski, district biologist for the Ironton Ranger District on the Wayne National Forest. “We work with some great partners, and we couldn’t do it without their help.”
To help local families contribute their used live Christmas trees, partners like Lawrence-Scioto Solid Waste Management District and local Lowes Home Improvement stores established collection points around Lawrence County, Ohio. After removing the ornaments, lights, and adornments, families drop off their used live trees at the collection points.
The trees are then delivered to employees at Wayne National Forest, where they receive and process between 300 and 600 trees every year. Forest Service employees and volunteers prepare the trees by drilling holes in the trunks and tying them together in bundles of two or three.
On sinking day, employees from the Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife bring boats for loading and transporting the tree bundles to their final aquatic resting place. A cinder block is attached to the base of each bundle as a weight to anchor the tree to the lake or river bed.
“The trees help us get a good habitat going with lots of different species,” said Kuflewski.
“That makes great large game fishing for the public.”
The trunks and branches of recycled trees add structure and complexity to the lakebed habitat in which small fish can feed and hide from predators. As the branches decompose, they grow beneficial algae that attract and feed zooplankton. The zooplankton and algae in turn feed mussels, snails, and crawfish that feed catfish and small baitfish. The small baitfish nourish and attract large gamefish for recreational and sustenance fishing for forest visitors.
With community support and a post-yuletide splash, new aquatic homes are established each winter for local flora, fauna, and fishermen to enjoy for years to come.
This is one of the many Forest Service traditions for meaningfully repurposing Christmas trees. Ruby, the 78-foot-tall 2022 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, will become musical instruments such as guitars and banjos for donation to local communities. Sugar Bear, the 84-foot 2021 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, became serving trays and lumber for picnic tables. Others, like as with most municipal tree recycling programs, were turned into mulch to benefit the diverse flora of local urban landscapes.
To find resources for locally recycling or repurposing your Christmas tree, contact your local municipality to see if it offers a program. Another great resource for recycling trees is the National Christmas Tree Association.
“We’ve partnered with the U.S. Forest Service (on this project) for as long as I can remember,” said Matt Hangsleben, fish management supervisor for the Division of Wildlife in Athens. “They collect the trees and we just basically come in with our boats and sink them either at Timbre Ridge or Vesuvius.”
In addition to the U.S. Forest Service project, the Division of Wildlife also has its own Christmas tree collection process, said Hangsleben.
“We collect trees basically everywhere from Zanesville to Chillicothe,” he said. “We kind of rotate lakes in our area (where they sink the Christmas tree bundles).”
The Division of Wildlife has been using spent Christmas trees for lake structure for at least the past 15 years.
“And, I know we put in some structure in reservoirs way back into the 1980s, too,” said Hangsleben.
As a benefit to anglers, all of the structure piles that are put into Ohio lakes are included on maps that are available through the Ohio Lake Map Resource Interactive Map that is available on the Division of Wildlife’ website (www.wildohio.gov) and on the popular HuntFishOh app.
“Most of the sinking happens here during the winter so we try to have (the maps) updated sometime in March or early April for the new fishing season,” Hangsleben said.
This year, the Division of Wildlife plans to sink bundles into Dow Lake at Strouds Run State Park and Lake Vesuvius with the U.S. Forest Service.
“We get volunteer help to tie the trees together and attach cinder blocks to them,” Hangsleben said. “Then, we go out and sink them.”
Those “volunteers” vary depending on what part of the state the bundles are being placed. Conservation groups often provide help with this process.
“It’s just something we’d have a tough time doing ourself with manpower and the like,” Hangsleben said.
The Christmas tree bundles serve as terrific fish attractors, Hangsleben said.
“They are fantastic for crappies,” he said. “And, what a lot of people don’t realize is that depending on the age of the pile you’ll get a lot of bass hanging around them. We’ve caught big flatheads off of them, too, while crappie fishing. We’ve also caught saugeyes around them. They really kind of attract all of the species that we have in our lakes.
“We want people to know about these spots because they’re really good at attracting fish,” Hangsleben said.
The lakes that are chosen for this type of project heavily depend on who owns them, Hangsleben said.
“There are some lakes where we can’t put Christmas trees into because they are a water source or something along those lines,” he said.
Ohio Outdoor News Editor Mike Moore contributed information to this story.