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O, Tannenbaum! Christmas Trees and Climate Change

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Cutting a tree for Christmas. | Photo: Katie Brady/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Real or Fake? Natural or Artificial? What kind of Christmas tree have you stepped up into your living room or community center, or gazed upon in urban square, suburban mall, or village green?

The answer is not obvious: fake is on the rise.

China alone produces more than 10 million artificial Xmas trees a year, 90 percent of which are sold in the United States. There has been a strong run on the faux creations this year. Home Depot, Target, and Wal-Mart have reported a double-digit jump in sales over last year. Nationwide the increase is a bit lower, estimated at 6 percent, with total sales in 2012 expected to top 13.4 million, reaping $1.07 billion. No wonder the manufacturing process for this winter symbol has gone global.

But why have people been so willing to drop up to $1200 for what one online seller, Tree Classics, has trademarked as RealFeel™ Christmas Trees ("with highest quality Real Feel PE technology")? Are folks so put off by shedding pine needles that they gladly plunk down a hard-earned $400 for a "Martha Stewart Living 9 ft. Pre-lit Snowy Pine Artificial Christmas Tree with Pine Cones and Multi-Color Lights"?

Perhaps they are doing so because for them the virtual has become the new real. That's what consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow speculated, telling a USA Today reporter: "An artificial tree is ever so slightly more real today because our concept of reality is shifting through our use of technology." If what we know comes from a screen, if an iPad or smartphone is how we navigate and make sense of the world, then tangible objects such as real trees "may have lost some of their allure."

Some buyers are clearly in transition or simply cannot make up their minds. USA Today notes this puzzling choice: 11 percent of Christmas tree buyers in 2011 bought real and fake versions.

Still, most buyers go old school, paying on average $35 for a real tree with all the trimmings -- bark and resin, needles and scent -- which the consumer then decorates, ornaments, and tinsels by hand.

Industry figures reflect this preponderance and the economic benefits that flow from it: in 2011, consumers bought nearly 31 million natural trees, supporting the nation's 12,000 Christmas tree growers and about 100,000 jobs (full- and part-time), while generating more than $1 billion in sales. In this "United States of Trees," the market remains real green.

Its verdancy can produce important environmental benefits, too, and it is this potential that leads Frank Lowenstein to urge even the most-tech American to go natural.

To help them, and the rest of us, assess the environmental impact of their choices Lowenstein, who is the Climate Change Adaptation Strategy Leader for The Nature Conservancy, posted an online Season's Greeting of sorts. In it, he breaks down the ecological costs of the artificial trees. Made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a derivative of petroleum, even more fossil fuels are burned to ship or truck the fake tree to the American consumer (85% of those we buy traveled here from China). That's an inconvenient truth about what many believe is a purchase of convenience.

One could counter that the on-the-ground management and subsequent shipping of farmed-raised trees within the United States also makes these green buys more oil-black than they might appear.

Lowenstein concedes this point (though distance traveled is a key factor in the calculating the full environmental costs of any sale). That's why he urges his blog readers to buy local -- go to small retailers in your neighborhoods. Better yet, head out to nearby rural areas where you can cut your own tree.

It's why he also suggests, where possible, that we seek out organic tree farms this sapling-like sector of the industry (there are seven such establishments in Californiatwo of which are located in Southern California). With saw or ax in hand, and as the dust and chips settle, there will be no doubt where your hardy fir or spruce comes from.

That knowledge will come coupled with the more face-to-face nature of the purchase, that, like shopping at farmer's markets, give you a better sense of how your tree was grown, by whom, and under what conditions. It is a process that makes us smarter consumers.

We'll also better understand the larger implications of our consumption in this troubling era of climate change. Lowenstein argues, for example, that because real Christmas trees are rooted in the soil they are able to sequester carbon. Even when harvested, and only 10% of them are cut a year, this essential air-cleaning process of absorption is maintained. Moreover, growers immediately replant, often at a ratio of two or three for ever one tree cut down, allowing this industry, with more than 400 million trees in the ground, to operate on a sustainable, Earth-affirming basis.

U. S. Forester Gifford Pinchot reportedly made the same claim to his boss, President Theodore Roosevelt, after the Chief Executive banned the use of natural Christmas trees in the White House in 1901. The source of presidential concern is said to have been the broader public debate over the rapid deforestation of the nation's forested landscapes.

Beginning with the 1864 publication of George Perkins Marsh's "Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action," which argued that we were degrading the environment that sustained us in a mad-dash rush to make money, many Americans, including Roosevelt and Pinchot, adopted Marsh's argument for restraint, as embodied in the idea of conservationism.

Many conservationists began challenging the growing popularity of harvesting natural Christmas trees, a debate to which the Minneapolis Times contributed: "The annual harvest of Christmas trees threatens to strip our forests of their fir and spruce," it affirmed in 1899. "Now is the time to for some inventor to step to the front with a wire Christmas tree warranted absolutely fire proof. As wire is durable, a large family of children could be brought up on one Christmas tree and much timber would be saved."

Protecting timber was also of considerable concern to Roosevelt when he became president in 1900, in the tragic wake of William B. McKinley's assassination; and to Pinchot, then head of the tiny Bureau of Forestry located in the Department of Agriculture. As president and forester they worked with Congress to create a more rigorous set of protections for the public domain. One outcome of which was the 1905 establishment of the U.S. Forest Service and the millions of acres of national forests it managed; TR appointed Pinchot the new agency's first chief.

Some four years earlier, apparently worried that erecting a natural Christmas tree at the presidential mansion might undercut his environmental bona fides and retard his administration's progress in enacting conservation legislation, Roosevelt decided not to display any tree.

His sons had other ideas, or so the story goes. Youngsters Archie and Quentin are said to have cut down a tree on the White House grounds, dragged it indoors, tucked it into a closet and decorated it, and then sprang the glittering surprise on Christmas morning.

Their bemused father, not to be outdone, then called on forester Pinchot to set his clever sons right. In an unexpected twist, the head of the Forest Service sided with the miscreants, pointing out that harvesting trees had some beneficial impacts on overall forest health, stimulating much-needed regeneration.

This is a great narrative. Alas, only some elements of it are accurate, according to James G. Lewis, historian at the Forest History Society who has exposed its uncertain origins. In 1902, Archie rigged up a small Christmas tree in the closet, but in a letter recounting the episode his father registered happy surprise at his son's resourcefulness. There was no mention of Gifford Pinchot tutoring the president, either.

This revision does not mean the incident, however diminished, has little value. Even a lie can tell a truth. And the truth here is that farm-grown Christmas trees, like all trees, perform a critical climatological function that plastic alternatives can never replicate.

Reason enough this holiday season (and all future ones) to get real.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

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