By Joshua Blanco
As the holiday season comes to an end, Christmas trees that served throughout the season as the centerpiece for households are taken down and hauled away, out of sight and out of mind until the next holiday season arrives.
Let’s face it: that’s not always the best feeling. For many, nothing says the holidays are over quite like having to take down the tree. And the environmentally conscious are left wondering whether having a live tree was a good idea in the first place.
In short, yes—if you do it right. According to a 2018 study commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association, unless you plan to use an artificial tree for at least five years, a real tree is your best bet. Many artificial trees are manufactured with carcinogens like PVC in energy-sucking, fossil fuel-emitting factories before being shipped across the globe on gasoline-powered boats only to be buried in a landfill eventually.
That’s not to say real trees don’t have carbon footprints of their own. After all, it can take up to seven years to produce a single Christmas tree. The difference is that real trees absorb carbon dioxide and other gases throughout their life cycles, in turn producing fresh oxygen. They’re also recyclable, biodegradable and renewable. Not to mention that purchasing real trees goes a long way in supporting local economies.
“Fraser fir accounts for around 98 percent of the Christmas tree market in NC,” says Jason Whitehill, assistant professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State University. “It’s a species that’s only found in the southern Appalachian mountains at higher elevations.”
What’s more, there are approximately 200 tree farms in the NC mountains alone that let you cut your own, Whitehill says.
Those worried they might have played a role in disturbing the ecosystem by purchasing a real tree can rest easy knowing the vast majority of them are grown on farms like those Whitehill mentioned. Other species commonly used in place of the Fraser, such as the White and Virginia pines, are out in the wild, playing diverse roles in maintaining the ecosystems of WNC. “They’re not just scattered out there,” says Gary Kauffman, botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Each species has a function and an important role to play in their individual ecosystems.”
Of those roles, one of the most important is their ability to act as a hedge against forest fires. Kauffman says that “because pine trees can withstand more frequent fire, they can help to maintain the woodland component.” Trouble is, some of those fire-adapted species are not exposed to fire at a rate essential for them to flourish.
As a result, restoration efforts such as prescribed burning have been put in place to help these species thrive. “We’re trying to increase the abundance of some of those fire-adapted species that have been in decline over the past decades due to lack of disturbance and lack of fire,” explains Tara Keyser, director of the Center for Forest Restoration and Management.
According to her, the best thing people can do is keep themselves educated on the measures being taken to keep our forests alive. “To me,” she says, “it’s really just about doing what we can to understand and value those ecosystem services that come with a properly functioning forest.” And feeling bad about enjoying a real tree isn’t one of them.
To learn more about the different species of pine trees and what’s being done to preserve them visit NCForestService.gov.