Used Christmas Trees Become Habitat for Coho Salmon

Christmas for Coho is proud to announce we collected 400 used Christmas trees this January, which will be placed in an off-channel wetland complex in Oregon’s Necanicum River as habitat enhancement for threatened coho salmon. 
This project began in January of 2011 when the Tualatin Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited started collecting used Christmas trees from the public in the Portland metro area. The idea grew out of our work on other habitat enhancement projects, which were partially funded with EAS grants from Trout Unlimited. This included work to build off-channel wetland complexes along the Necanicum River to provide coho fry with the habitat they seek out for their first year of life in freshwater.
The Christmas for Coho project is an effort to further recreate historical conditions on our coastal streams. Even if you are old enough to have seen log trucks hauling a piece of a single log to the mill here in Oregon, it is extremely difficult to visualize the amount of woody debris that was in these streams. This debris was renewed on an annual basis as limbs and whole trees lived out their life cycle. When wind and rain struck, these trees would lose limbs and some would fall over. The size of these limbs and trees would stagger the imagination.
The in-stream debris thus consisted of large woody matter like logs and limbs as well as the foliage attached to them. This mechanism is one of the keys to a healthy ecosystem and the introduction of the leaves (needles) kicks off a biological and chemical process that underpins aquatic stream life by making a habitat for biofilms. Biofilms are complex communities of microorganisms growing on a solid substrate. When we place old christmas trees in the water in areas that egged out fry are seeking for refuge, chemical reactions begin to take place and the surface of the needles is colonized by microorganisms. The detritus is grazed upon by other organisms and the cycle of life is on its way, eventually providing food for the young salmon fry. With the passage of time, the needles and smaller branches break down and by the end of a year about all that remains is the main trunk and maybe a few of the larger branches. This large woody debris becomes part of the bottom and continues to provide food for a huge host of organisms, like burrowing mayflies.
Man has now altered the landscape to such a degree that this replenishment is hardly occurring at all and not on anything like the historical scale. Couple this with the draining of wetlands and channelizing of our streams and it is a wonder there are any anadromous fish in the river at all. Life does find a way though and we can help. By placing old Christmas trees in off-channel stream complexes and in slackwater areas on the main stem, we can provide the food and habitat that young fish, and coho salmon in particular, need to thrive.
During our first year we realized that many of the folks dropping off Christmas trees were not from the fishing community and that everyone we talked to was very excited that their tree could be used to help restore salmon habitat. We decided to add a second collection site in 2012, and since then we have improved our transportation methods and our outreach to the media and have been able to make this effort completely self-funded. We now operate two collection sites at area fly shops and collect 400-500 trees each January. Collection events are staffed by volunteers from three different TU chapters as well as volunteers from other conservation organizations and the general public.
This project has become our best way to bring Trout Unlimited’s conservation message to the public. Our project has been featured in numerous local news stories on TV, radio, and in print. Our story was also featured by National Public Radio and Field & Stream magazine, which was impressed enough with this effort that they sent a film crew to Portland last year and documented our volunteers as part of their “Hero For A Day” program. You can watch their video at


By Brennan Sang. I’m a father, a husband, a jack-of-all-web-trades, and an avid outdoorsman.