Thursday, December 08, 2011

Get the Real Deal

Some folks continue to assume that real Christmas trees are removed from forested areas, thus doing damage to the natural environment.  That simply is not true today. It probably seldom was true in recent history.

Back when I worked on the staff of the Boise National Forest, our District Rangers  issued a few permits for local residents to cut one tree about this time of year.  The charge usually was a dollar.  With the permit came instructions about where to harvest the tree so the forest would be improved in the long run.  Our Idaho City Ranger District was the only one to have a big program.

Near Idaho City several large burned areas had been reforested with ponderosa pines native to the sites.  Tree plantings can have a high percentage of failure in that part of the country if seedlings are mishandled or low rainfall prevails during the first few growing seasons when the little trees struggle to get established.  To counteract climate problems, foresters directed seedlings be planted quite close together, assuming there was a pretty good chance nature would thin the stands. 

Growing conditions at the Idaho City sites apparently were well above average.  As the trees got to be three to eight feet tall, they severely crowded each other and growth was slowed. So for a number of years the Idaho City foresters tagged trees for removal and invited the public out to select and cut a family Christmas tree.  Remaining trees grew more vigorously, the families had a ball, and taxpayer dollars were conserved because there was no need to hire crews to thin the stands.

The Idaho City program ended the year after I left for another job. Idaho City had a population of only 80, and thus most people had to travel some distance, usually from Boise, to get to the cutting sites. Despite that, the public response to the annual invitation for a family Christmas tree outing had been so good there simply was no further need to thin the plantations.  That was several decades ago, and I’ve not heard of any large-scale Christmas tree cutting in a National Forest or other forested area since then.

Lee and Karen with their selection at Peterson's nursery
Today, trees come from some 15,000 farms spread through all 50 states.  Michigan, where we cut our tree every year, ranks third among tree-growing states behind Oregon and North Carolina.  We are told the growers plant three trees for every one removed. Our experience supports that.  When we cut our tree at Peterson’s Riverview Nursery each year, we must be careful not to step on the new little seedlings as we move our prize to a loading area. 

Peterson’s is no rinky-dink operation.  Trailers pulled by tractors deliver customers to large cutting areas and return them and their trees to a processing site near the office.  Crews there put your tree in a shaking machine to remove foreign matter. They drill holes in the base to help you with mounting and also facilitate moisture movement into the tree after you have it in a stand at home. Workers will trim branches to your specifications. Then another machine ties the branches to form a neat bundle, and the men carry your tree to your vehicle.

It sounds like a big operation, and in some respects it is (this year Peterson’s shipped more than 6,000 wreaths in what is just one part of the business).  However, like most tree nurseries, this is no huge corporation run by overpaid executives who never dirty their hands with production work. Jerry and Anne Peterson started the business 18 years ago.  They and son Josh, now a co-owner, work in the fields and production and sales areas year round. The firm has six to 25 employees, depending on the season.

Every time we’ve gone to buy a tree we had an opportunity to chit-chat a bit with Jerry, Anne, and Josh.  They are local people.  Their nursery is only a few miles from our home in the same county.  It is nice to know payroll dollars and profits are returned to our area.

American tree farmers like the Petersons collectively sell 30 million Christmas trees annually.  The total has declined by about 3 million in the past 10 years.  The chief reason is the growing popularity of artificial Christmas trees.  No doubt some people have good reasons to buy the plastic trees, but enhancing the environment is not one of them.  Following are several reasons why buying a natural tree is a good deal.  Thanks to the Nature Conservancy for some of them:

1. Tree farming protects precious open space, keeping fairly large areas of land free from urban development.

2. More than 80 percent of artificial trees sold in the U.S. are manufactured in China.  They are made from vinyl plastics based on petroleum that require large amounts of carbon-producing energy in their manufacture. Vinyl plastics are among the most difficult to recycle.  When they can be, the reprocessing again requires large amounts of energy. Ships transporting the plastic trees across the Pacific burn big quantities of diesel fuel, emitting more air pollutants.

3. Natural trees, especially young, vigorous ones, purify the air we breathe by taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen.  

4. After use, natural trees are easily recycled as mulch using simple chipping equipment, and the mulch improves soils as it breaks down.  About 4,000 communities in the U.S. have Christmas tree recycling programs.

5. Natural trees add a pleasant aroma to your home during the holidays.  Plastic trees, of course, cannot do this.

6. Selecting your tree at a lot, or cutting one at a nursery if you prefer, is a lot more fun than picking up a boxed plastic model at Walmart.  Son Lee and his fiancée Karen radiate pleasure with their find at Peterson’s nursery in the photo with this post.  So can you when you find and bring home the real thing.


JHawk23 said...

Thanks for pointing out the realities of artificial trees' effects on the environment. In addition, I would note, having had both kinds, I find the artificial ones are really a lot more trouble to put up, they're heavy, bulky, and they have to be stored over the 11 months a year they're not in use.

Unfortunately, we did switch to the artificial version about ten years ago, after discovering my wife was allergic to the real thing. We still miss the aroma of a good fir, though.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

This year I got one of those little B&B trees, but next year, I am getting the real deal. Thanks for such a timely and informed article. Dianne

Sightings said...

Good to point out ... a lot of people don't know that young fast-growing trees take in a lot more CO2 and release a lot more oxygen than old mature trees that may look stately but aren't doing much to clean the air.

We used to drive 1 1/4 hrs. to northern Conn. to cut our own tree. Now we buy one locally, hopefully doing our little part to save the environment. We don't have quite so many lights this year either.

Kay said...

I was a little surprised when you wrote tree farms in 50 states. I didn't think we had a Christmas tree farm. Sure enough, right on this island and I've seen it. They grow norfolk pines. Wow! Learn something new every day!