Can we use Christmas trees for fire management?

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A Sierra Nevada forest in wintertime.

Over the past week, I’ve been talking trees with my friends and colleagues. But not any trees: Christmas trees. The question on the table: what is the environmental impact of a Christmas tree, real or artificial?

The whole thing began when a friend, a big plant lover, urged others via Facebook not to buy a real tree in order to respect the environment. Many comments followed. A mutual friend, knowing that I’d done some reading on this topic before, asked me to share some of the sources I’d found on the topic.

A lot of environmentalists assume that an artificial tree is the right choice: it’s reusable, and it doesn’t require cutting down a living tree every year only to stick it in your house for a couple of weeks until it dies. But the evidence says that this isn’t necessarily true–indeed, multiple sources, including a thorough “Life Cycle Assessment” by an environmental consulting firm, say that natural trees are actually the better choice: most Christmas trees are grown on farms, where young trees are planted annually to replace the ones that are cut down, while artificial trees are made of environmentally harmful PVC and are usually transported from China.

Others argue that the artificial vs. natural debate doesn’t matter much at all–no matter which tree you pick, the carbon footprint is far less than an average person’s footprint for a single day. And if you do want to minimize impact, details like where your tree comes from, tree farm practices, how many years you reuse your artificial tree, etc. are probably the more important choices. There are creative, earth-friendly options on both sides: a live tree that can be planted in your yard, for example, or a fake tree made from unconventional recycled materials. (The “greenest” tree I ever had growing up was definitely when we cut off the top ten feet of a Norway spruce that had toppled over in our backyard during a storm.)

And so I compiled all of this into an e-mail, finishing it off with something like “I support natural trees, assuming you’re not randomly going into the forest and randomly chopping down a tree, which few people do anyway.”

And then it occurred to me that I was perhaps missing the forest for the trees. I live in California. I care about wildfires and fire management. And one of the main strategies for managing forests for wildfire in California? Thinning small trees to reduce fuel load.

Thinning forests is controversial (really a topic for another post)–and it’s not as cost-effective or ecologically beneficial as getting real fire on the ground. But there’s no smoke, it’s precise, and has support from many interests. In any case, it’s one of the strategies we have, and one that we’ll need to continue to use as part of our forest management toolbox.

So here’s the holiday question of the day: in California, is the environmentally-friendly, fire-friendly choice to cut your Christmas tree from a forest rather than a farm?

The small trees that serve as ladder fuels (fuels that carry a fire from the forest floor to the treetops) would be pretty good Christmas trees. Many such trees are small enough to fit in your house, and they are shade-tolerant species that have the Christmas tree look, like red and white fir.

I’m not the first one to have the idea of using Christmas trees for fire management, but it’s not an idea that shows up often in real vs. artificial debates, which tend to focus on the tree’s carbon footprint. Here is one really good article on this idea, from UC Cooperative Extension Forestry, which provides lots of useful information on cutting your own tree in California.

But is cutting a Christmas tree for forest management really a good or practical idea?Individuals cutting single trees on a small scale probably won’t have much effect on fire behavior. On a larger scale, there may be more cost-effective uses for the products of thinning than Christmas trees. And as is the case with artificial and farmed trees, there are so many factors involved in choosing a tree that it would be hard to argue that cutting a tree is a better choice than anything else, even in California.

So what’s the takeaway? Here are a few:

  • Always consider the forest AND the trees–individual trees can only thrive in a healthy ecosystem.
  • Think about your local environmental context when you choose a tree, or when purchasing other environmental resources. Choosing a tree in California may be different than doing so in New York.
  • When deciding what is “environmentally-friendly”, think beyond carbon footprint (carbon is definitely important, but there are other considerations, like wildlife habitat and wildfire).

Any thoughts from the audience? If you live near forests where thinning takes place, have you considered getting your Christmas tree this way?

Happy holidays from Talk About Fire!

P.S. Speaking of fire, if you have a live tree, make sure to keep it watered, turn the lights off when you’re not around, and avoid real candles and other fire hazards. We don’t want to move the fire from the forest to your home! Other tips here.

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You can always create a lovely mixed-candyfir forest to celebrate!

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