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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Each year following the holidays, the Environmental Program Division of the NAS Oceana Public Works Department, in partnership with the 1st Lieutenant's Department at Dam Neck Annex, offers a unique way to give Christmas trees a "new life," by recycling the trees on Dam Neck's beach.
For at least the past 10 years, Sailors from the 1st Lieutenant Department have used donated trees to build up the dunes along the Dam Neck's four miles of beaches.
Beginning each January, as trees pile up at two collection sites, the bushy evergreens of every shape and size imaginable are placed side-by-side behind the fence. To catch the sand better, trees are placed with the cut end in toward the dunes. As the wind and waves blow the sand over the trees, it builds up the dunes and over the years, the pine trees underneath the sand decompose.
"The purpose of the program is dune stabilization and to create a barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and our military mission," explained Michael Wright, natural resources specialist at Oceana. "It allows us to continue training on base and it allows us to do it in a more natural way."
Wright explained the trees help catch the sand and build up the dunes.
"So when we do have storms like [Hurricane] Sandy come through, we don't end up with ocean water breaches, which would one, destroy habitat and displace wildlife and two, cause delays and stoppage of military training," he said.
This year's recycling project began the first week of January and by the second week, the Sailors were adding nearly 40 trees to those already lined up side-by-side behind new wooden fencing put into place following the hurricane.
"Every couple of days, we've been coming out, laying as many out as there are, leaving about 15 just so there's a good pile so people can see the distribution point," explained Cryptologic Technician Technical 2nd Class (SW/AW) Noah McHugh from the 1st Lieutenant Department.
The number of trees recycled annually has ranged from 500 up to 2,000 and Wright expects in 2013, the total to be around 1,000 trees. In 2008, Natural Resources began contacting the regional landfills, local businesses and tree farms for any leftover trees that could be picked up by the 1st Lieutenant Department. But she noted that many businesses did not carry as many trees the past two holidays, resulting in fewer donations to the program.
Recycling the trees is one of three parts of the dune restoration efforts by Natural Resources. Sand fencing and planting of native dune grasses and other plants twice a year is also part of the restoration efforts, which proved its worth along the shoreline during Hurricane Sandy which hit Hampton Roads Oct. 29.
"All these things work together and they did exactly what they were supposed to do. We did not have any breaches and in the manmade sections where we got hit the hardest, it didn't unearth the hardened core," said Wright.
While Wright said Sandy didn't do exceptional damage to the beach, the hurricane did destroy much of the wooden fencing along the beach and many of last year's trees were gone. Although the 1st Lieutenant Department was able to retrieve some of the pine trees and put them back into place, others were carried out to sea by the rough waves.
"But had that barrier not been there, it would have gone into the next layer," said Wright.
"The trees definitely served their purpose," agreed Lt. Omar Robinson, Dam Neck's assistant officer in charge.
As McHugh drove a load of trees down the beach Jan. 8, he pointed out many of the two-by-four wooden posts originally placed about every eight feet along the beach were missing or snapped into very small pieces along the beach. But behind the broken and battered fence line, much of the dunes, built up over several years of recycling the trees, remained intact with grasses sprouting up from the sand.
"The trees definitely fared better than the fence," laughed McHugh. "The trees kept the dunes from being completely washed up, but we still have to recreate the fence."
So far, the trees used have been just those donated to one of two collection sites by individuals following the holidays. Donation is easy; for those without base access, trees can be dropped off at the Natural Resources Center, across from the Oceana stables on Oceana Boulevard. At Dam Neck, new oversized wooden signs provide directions to the collection site behind CDSA in building 127, a site much closer to the beach than the 1st Lieutenant's headquarters.
Wright said any extra trees collected this year will be used to build up height in locations on base "where the storms are starting to wreak havoc and there could be a potential breach."
While tree collection is scheduled to formally end Jan. 21, Robinson said, "We'll keep putting trees on the dunes as long as people are bringing them."