Each year the debate is renewed. Both sides tout their superiority. Some favor tradition. Some favor convenience. Yet both make claims why they are the green option. Real vs. artificial trees. But before you put up a Christmas tree, do you know the benefits to a forest when you cut down a tree in the backcountry (or on your private land)?
For the record, I am not talking about commercial or mom & pop tree farms, but honest to goodness forests. And since I am talking about Christmas trees, that means evergreens. Common Christmas tree varieties in the United States include, but not limited to: Austrian Pine, Balsam Fir, Blue Spruce, Douglas fir, Eastern Red Cedar, Fraser Fir, Grand Fir, Lodge Pole Pine, Noble Fir, Ponderosa Pine, Scotch (or Scots) Pine, Virginia Pine, White Fir, White Pine and White Spruce.
Reasons Why Christmas Tree Cutting Can Benefit a Forest
- Cutting from an old burn area (with lots of crowded young trees) provides more room for remaining trees to grow
- Remaining trees are less stressed and better situated to cope with disease and insects
- Reducing competition allows for easier access to water, nutrients, and sunlight
- Reducing wildfire risk by providing less potential fuel for a fire
- Harvesting young trees (think Christmas tree-sized) allows remaining trees to become ‘windfirm’, meaning that they tolerate and stand up to strong winds (less likely to be blown over)
- Improving the wildlife habitat by providing ‘vertical structure’ so a greater variety of species can coexist in a habitat ranging from canopy to intermediate to forest floor (many layers) compared to an area in which all trees are the same age (and similar height)
- Thinning trees allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor which helps promote greater plant diversity: grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, understory trees, etc…
If you choose to go into the backcountry to harvest your Christmas tree, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Potential Cutting Issues
- Some areas may require a permit (usually a nominal fee)
- There may be designated areas for tree cutting
- There may be a limit set to the maximum number of trees you are allowed to cut
- Christmas tree cutting may be allowed only during a brief period of time
- The size of tree (diameter of the trunk at the base) may be regulated. As an example, 6″ or less may be permitted
- Gas powered tools, such as a chainsaw may not be allowed, so tools are limited to axes or hand saws
- Avoid areas with lots of snags (dead trees still standing) as falling trees may be an issue
- Access to tree cutting areas may be impacted by road conditions (such as ice and/or snow) so plan accordingly
Cutting down your own tree for the holidays can be a wonderful experience. Make a day of it. Involve your children. Bring along a sled to haul the tree. Dress appropriately for the weather, but be aware that conditions may quickly change. Pack a lunch. Take photos of the adventure. Be sure to include cord, rope or straps to tie the tree down to your vehicle.
Lastly, be aware that trees from a forest will not be perfectly shaped like their counterparts at tree farms which have been shaped into a pyramidal form. This creates dense branching (no bare spots). I view this as a positive. A tree cut from the forest will have a natural branching habit. This means that when ornaments are placed on the tree, they will actually hang rather that lying on top of the branches.
So go ahead and brave the outdoors. Don’t feel guilty for cutting down a tree. You are actually benefitting the forest. If you are going into the backcountry (rather than your own land), check with the appropriate agency to see if there are any particular cutting instructions. Harvesting your own Christmas tree can be a fun family experience and create a memory that you will never forget.