Christmas is a time to celebrate the season and a time to cut 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, University of New Hampshire forest resource specialist, explained some of the factors that he considers when deciding whether cutting a tree in New Hampshire is an environmental boon.
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Roberge says that the first caveat is that it’s not as easy as you might think. Many people assume that the practice is environmentally damaging, but this is not always the case.
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 compared it to a tomato, but one that has been grown for eight to twelve years.
Christmas tree farms are habitat that can provide ecosystem benefits or services to the natural environment. It is still open space. The soils still retain carbon. They filter our water. Roberge stated that they provide habitat for critters. This cycle continues because the trees are cut are replaced with new seedlings.
It is possible to support a local farm and keep it open and undeveloped. New Hampshire is losing land and forest at a rate of around5,000 acres annuallyRoberge stated, “Those acres are almost all being lost to the development.”
Sequestering carbon and its storage
Trees also play a role in both sequestering carbon and storing it, which are distinct but related functions. Carbon storageThe amount of carbon a forest has stored in its trees, living and dead, and in its soil and leaves. The forest gets older, the more carbon it retains.
Carbon sequestration is the amount of carbon trees are actively taking out from the atmosphere to use for photosynthesis. It usually peaks in young or intermediate forests, which are trees between 30 to 70 years old. The rate at which trees continue to sequester carbon throughout life is lower than it was in the past.
Roberge stated that the small Christmas trees are unlikely to store a lot of carbon as they are young. They are however sequestering a fair bit of carbon as they grow quickly. They are a crop so once they are cut down, they are replaced with other trees that will take their place.
Forests are transformed into development, which reduces carbon sequestration and carbon stock.
Roberge said that if you develop a acre of land, you lose the ability of sequestering carbon for the future and also the ability of storing that carbon on the site. This is a climate problem.
Weather events become more unpredictable. It is the trees, farm fields, and Christmas tree plantations that are able to absorb four to six inches of rainwater, which pavement cannot absorb, that make the ground more resilient. Roberge stated that the less pavement we have, the better our ability to weather severe storms that can cause flooding and erosion.
The final destination of a Christmas tree is an important part its environmental journey.
The carbon from a tree that has been harvested and made into furniture will be kept in the chair for a long period of time to prevent it from being released into the atmosphere. Wood that is cut and used for fuel will release carbon back into the atmosphere. Wood-burning stoves can also produce particulates.Human health is at risk. Wood is less harmful when it is burned efficiently and produces less smoke.
The final destination for many Christmas trees in New Hampshire is often a local transport station. Many towns and counties will accept such material, grind it in a drum grinder or make compost out of it. Roberge explained that this is just material that is going back into the ground, and that the decomposition is slow.
Some people have found creative ways to recycle their Christmas trees. For example, they offload them to farmers with goats who love to eat the Christmas trees. A treat like candy for them. Sometimes the trees can be used to feed the goats for many months.
Roberge said that keeping the forest land or open space as it is, is what I consider the most important. He stated that it will be a huge help in the fight against climate change if we prevent lots of land being developed.