Christmas is a time when we celebrate the season, but it’s also a time when we need to take down trees. Holiday tradition can lead to arguments about what is best for the environment. Is it better to buy a real or fake tree or to abstain completely?
Steven Roberge, UNH Forest Resources Specialist, explained the factors he uses to determine whether cutting trees is an environmental boon in New Hampshire.
Roberge states that there is a first caveat. Many people assume that the practice is environmentally damaging, but this is not always true.
He said that if trees are cut in a thoughtful and appropriate manner, I have no problem cutting them and managing our forest.
Christmas trees are different because they are a crop grown in a plantation environment. Roberge said it was like a tomato but one that’s been grown for 8 to 12 years.
Christmas tree farms are habitat that can provide ecosystem benefits or services to the natural environment. It’s still open space. The soils still absorb carbon and keep it. They filter water. Roberge stated that they provide habitat for critters. The cycle continues as the trees that are removed are replaced by new seedlings that grow in their place.
A local farm can be supported to keep it open and free of development. New Hampshire is losing farm land and forest at an alarming rate. 5,000 acres annuallyRoberge stated, “Those acres are almost all being lost to the development.”
Sequestering and carbon storage
Both sequestering and carbon storage are performed by trees. Carbon storageThis is the amount of carbon that a forest stores in both dead and living trees as well as in soil and leaves. The forest gets older, the more carbon it retains.
Carbon sequestration refers to the carbon trees are actively removing from the atmosphere to use as photosynthesis. This usually occurs in young to intermediate forests or trees between 30 and 70 year old. However, trees continue to store carbon throughout their lives at a slower rate.
Roberge stated that small trees, which are often cut for Christmas, are unlikely to store much carbon because they are young. They are however sequestering some carbon as they grow quickly. They are a crop and are therefore replaced by trees that take their place.
Forests are transformed into development, which reduces carbon sequestration and carbon stock.
Roberge stated that if you develop an acre of land you not only lose the ability to sequester future carbon but also the ability to store that carbon on the site. This is a climate problem.
Weather events are becoming more bizarre. It is the forests, farms, and Christmas tree plantations, where the ground can absorb four to six inches of rainfall. Roberge said that the more pavement, the better we can weather storms that cause significant erosion and flooding.
End of the game
It is important to note that the final destination of a Christmas Tree is an important part in its environmental journey.
A tree that is harvested and turned into furniture will have its carbon locked up for a long time, preventing it being released into our atmosphere. Wood that is cut and burned as fuel will release carbon back into the atmosphere. Wood-burning stoves also emit particulates. Harmful to the human body. Wood is less harmful when it is burned efficiently and produces less smoke.
Many Christmas trees in New Hampshire end up at a local transfer station. Many towns and villages will take such material and put it through a drum mill or grinder to make mulch or compost. Roberge stated that it is material that is going back into ground and that the process of decomposing it is very slow.
Some people have found other ways to recycle their trees, such as offloading them to farmers with goats that are eager to eat the Christmas trees. Treat them like candy. Sometimes, the trees can provide food for the goats for several months.
Roberge stated that the most important thing to me is to keep that forest land, or that land open space, instead of allowing it to be developed. He stated that it will be a huge help in the fight against climate change if we prevent lots of land being developed.
This story was first published by the New Hampshire Bulletin.