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Choosing a Wildlife-Friendly Christmas Tree

DAVID MIZEJEWSK, National Wildlife Federation | JANUARY 2, 2014

While purchasing an artificial tree is a one-time investment and doesn’t require cutting down trees, they are manufactured from unsustainable fossil fuels and will persist for centuries in the landfill when they are ultimately disposed of. They are also typically made overseas and shipped to the United States, increasing their carbon footprint and negative environmental impact.

Real trees, on the other hand, are typically grown in the U.S. or Canada on family-owned tree farms. There are 16 species that we commonly use as “Christmas trees” and many of them are native species. While the trees grow, they provide wildlife habitat, produce oxygen and sequester carbon. After trees are harvested, new trees are planted to replace them and keep the cycle going. Tree farms can help sustain rural communities and keep land from being developed into suburban sprawl.

So, in the big picture choosing a real Christmas tree is generally considered to be the more sustainable, wildlife-friendly choice – as long as you keep the following things in mind.

Buy Local and Sustainable

Like any form of agriculture, tree farming practices can impact the local environment. Support tree farms that use organic practices, follow Integrated Pest Management principles that minimize the use of pesticides, and practice water conservation. Ask your retailer for these details before purchasing a tree.

As with firewood, real holiday trees can also harbor non-native invasive pest species. Trees grown in one area and then transported and sold in another location may spread invasive forests pests such as gypsy moths, pine shoot beetle, balsam woolly adelgid, and Phytophthora ramorum, the fungus-like pathogen that causes sudden oak death. Many traditional holiday greens used in wreaths and garlands are non-native invasive species such as Asian bittersweet and multiflora rose that can spread from the ornamental berries.

The best way to minimize the chance of introducing a new pest to your neighborhood is by getting a locally sourced tree. Follow these tips:

• Purchase locally grown trees or greens for wreaths and garland.

• Cut down your own tree from a local cut-yourself farm or nursery.

• Obtain a permit and cut your own tree from a local forest within 10 to 20 miles of your house.

• Buy a pre-cut locally sourced tree from an established local business.

• Don’t use invasive species such as Asian bittersweet in decorations.

Ultimately, the day comes when your holiday trees need to be disposed of. Putting them in the trash is one option, but it’s better to keep them out of the landfill. Many communities have special tree recycling collections after the holidays or have a municipal compost facility where you can bring it. This is recommended for trees not grown locally.

However, sustainably, and locally grown trees can benefit your local wildlife, the soil in your yard, or even nearby restoration projects. Here are four ways to sustainably re-purpose your holiday trees:

1. Donate your tree to a local restoration project

There are all sorts of great local projects that take in Christmas trees and use them for restoration projects.

2. Create a brush pile

A brush pile consists of logs, branches and twigs and an old Christmas tree can make a great base. This is the easiest thing you can do with your tree if you have a yard. It directly benefits the wildlife in your backyard during winter months because brush piles and dead trees offer food and needed protection from the chill.

3. Use it in the garden

There are several ways you can recycle your holiday tree to enrich your soil by composting it or using the needles and boughs to cover your garden bed. Chop the trunk and branches and break your tree down, this will allow you to add some nice insulation to your garden.

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