Christmas is a time of celebration and a time to cut down trees. This holiday tradition often leads to discussions about how to best protect the environment.
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.
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, except that it has been grown for 8-12 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. 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. Roberge stated that New Hampshire is losing approximately 5,000 acres of farm and forest land each year. Most of those acres are being lost to development.
Sequestering and carbon storage
Both sequestering carbon and storing it are also performed by trees. Although they are distinct functions, they are closely related. Carbon storage refers to the amount of carbon that a forest stores in its trees, both living and dead. It also includes soil and leaves. The more carbon a forest retains, the older it becomes.
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. The rate at which trees continue to sequester carbon throughout life is lower than it was in the past.
Roberge stated that small trees, which are often cut for Christmas, are unlikely to store much carbon because they are young. However, they are sequestering some carbon because they are growing rapidly. They are a crop and are therefore replaced by trees that take their place.
When forests are converted into developments, both carbon sequestration as well as carbon storage are greatly reduced.
Roberge stated that if you develop an acre of land you not only lose the ability to sequester future carbon but also the storage of that carbon. 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 releases carbon into the atmosphere. Wood-burning stoves’ particulates can also pose a risk to human health. Wood is less harmful when it is burned efficiently.
The final destination for many Christmas trees in New Hampshire is often a local transport 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 the process of decomposition takes a while.
Some people have found other ways to recycle their trees. For example, they offload them to farmers who have goats who love the Christmas trees. Sometimes the trees can be fed to the goats for many 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.
Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. These issues were previously covered by VTDigger. Amanda is a Harvard University graduate and grew up in Vermont. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has been published in the Valley News and the LA Review of Books. Visit www.thevalleynews.com to learn more. newhampshirebulletin.com.