Cut­ting down trees is al­ways bad. (False.)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - LIVING -

Don’t feel bad about cut­ting down a tree for the hol­i­day. Christ­mas trees are crops grown on farms, like let­tuce or corn. They are not cut down from wild forests on a large scale, said Bert Cregg, an ex­pert in Christ­mas tree pro­duc­tion and forestry at Michi­gan State Univer­sity.

A 5- or 6-foot tree takes just un­der a decade to grow, and once it is cut down, the farmer will gen­er­ally plant at least one in its place. The trees pro­vide many ben­e­fits to the en­vi­ron­ment as they grow, clean­ing the air and pro­vid­ing wa­ter­sheds and habi­tats for wildlife. They grow best on rolling hills that are of­ten un­suit­able for other crops and, of course, they are biodegrad­able.

Ore­gon is the coun­try’s big­gest grower, fol­lowed by North Car­olina. Many other states also have siz­able Christ­mas tree farms, which pre­serve open land from devel­op­ment by their very ex­is­tence.

Big grow­ers tend to dom­i­nate in Ore­gon, like Hol­i­day Tree Farms, which uses he­li­copters to har­vest about a mil­lion trees an­nu­ally, for sale at big box stores and other lo­ca­tions.

In west­ern North Car­olina, the farms tend to be smaller, like the one owned by Larry Smith, who has been grow­ing trees for more than 40 years.

His busi­ness, Moun­tain Top Fraser Fir, was cho­sen to sup­ply this year’s White House Christ­mas tree, a 19-foot spec­i­men on dis­play in the Blue Room.

“Tell the kids and grand­kids to keep buy­ing real trees so we keep the lo­cal econ­omy strong and we don’t have to sell the land to the rich peo­ple from New York City to make con­dos,” Smith said.

Prices for real trees have reached record highs over the last few years be­cause farm­ers planted fewer trees dur­ing the 2008 re­ces­sion. That may have driven some fam­i­lies to make the leap to a man­u­fac­tured one. The av­er­age price was

$75 for a real tree last year, while the av­er­age price for an ar­ti­fi­cial tree — which can be reused — was $107, ac­cord­ing to a Nielsen/Har­ris poll con­ducted on be­half of the Na­tional Christ­mas Tree As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents sellers of real trees.

Tim O’Con­nor, a spokesman for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, said the best way to ensure fu­ture sup­ply was to buy a tree this year.

Reusing an ar­ti­fi­cial tree re­duces its im­pact. (True.)

A re­cent sur­vey for the Amer­i­can Christ­mas Tree As­so­ci­a­tion, con­ducted by Nielsen, found that three quar­ters of Amer­i­can house­holds dis­play a tree — and the vast ma­jor­ity of those, around 80 per­cent, are ar­ti­fi­cial.

Most of the ar­ti­fi­cial trees on the mar­ket are made of PVC and steel in China and shipped to the United States — and even­tu­ally sent to a land­fill.

While that may not sound eco-friendly, the ACTA, which rep­re­sents man­u­fac­tur­ers, claims the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact is lower than that of a real tree if you use the ar­ti­fi­cial tree for five or more years. The group ar­gues that get­ting a new, real tree each year — and pos­si­bly dis­pos­ing of it in a land­fill at the end of the sea­son — has a big­ger im­pact on green­house gas emis­sions, wa­ter and en­ergy use, and other ar­eas than a reused ar­ti­fi­cial tree does.

That as­ser­tion is based on a study car­ried out on the group’s be­half by WAP Sus­tain­abil­ity Con­sult­ing.

O’Con­nor of the NCTA, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that rep­re­sents sellers of real trees, said he re­jected the study’s find­ings, say­ing it was “fall-off-your-horse sim­ple that a tree made out of oil, turned into PVC plas­tic in China and shipped over on a boat, can­not be bet­ter than grow­ing a real tree.”

Cregg, the forestry ex­pert at Michi­gan State, said the study’s pa­ram­e­ters were too nar­row. What about the ef­fect on wildlife and lo­cal wa­ter sup­plies, he asked, and the ben­e­fit of pre­serv­ing farm­land and jobs?

“Are you in­ter­ested in sup­port­ing the lo­cal econ­omy and keep­ing plas­tic out of land­fills?” he said. “Those would be the ques­tions I would fo­cus on.”

Thomas Har­man, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Bal­sam Hill, a high-end ar­ti­fi­cial tree com­pany, said that his fac­to­ries re­cy­cle scrap plas­tic for use in some com­po­nents of their prod­ucts.

But man­u­fac­tur­ing a re­cy­clable tree has been chal­leng­ing. The cop­per, steel and plas­tic that are fused to­gether in the pro­duc­tion process would need to be taken apart to be re­cy­cled.

In the mean­time, he en­cour­aged peo­ple to re­use trees and to adorn them with LED lights, which save en­ergy.

“We’re fo­cused on mak­ing our trees reusable as long as pos­si­ble,” Har­man said. “I hope that our trees are in use 20 or 30 years later.”

The green­est real tree is bought lo­cally and re­cy­cled. (True.)

The pref­er­ence for real trees is strong­est in the North­east and along the West Coast, data from the ACTA shows. O’Con­nor said that younger, more en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious con­sumers

— the same ones who buy or­ganic pro­duce at the gro­cery store — are in­creas­ingly em­brac­ing real trees. And some fam­i­lies enjoy vis­it­ing farms to choose and cut their own trees.

“There’s this won­der­ful fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence that’s just not par­al­lel to drag­ging a dusty box out of the at­tic,” O’Con­nor said.

Bill Ulfelder, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy in New York, said real trees were “un­ques­tion­ably” the bet­ter op­tion. He added that there are ways shop­pers can lessen the im­pact of us­ing a real tree: Shop lo­cally, min­i­mize driv­ing and re­cy­cle the tree.

The tree is just a drop in the bucket in the hol­i­day sea­son. (True.)

Brad McAl­lis­ter, a manag­ing direc­tor of WAP Sus­tain­abil­ity Con­sult­ing, said he was sur­prised by how small the im­pact of ei­ther tree choice was com­pared with other cen­tral el­e­ments of the hol­i­days, like air travel and shop­ping.

“If a con­sumer wants to cel­e­brate the hol­i­days in a truly en­vi­ron­men­tal fash­ion, they need to look be­yond just the Christ­mas tree,” he said.

Jami Warner, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the ACTA, was ea­ger to avoid a di­rect con­fronta­tion on the is­sue of real ver­sus ar­ti­fi­cial.

“We re­ally do be­lieve that there is no such thing as a bad Christ­mas tree,” she said.

JA­COB BIBA/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Larry Smith at his Christ­mas tree farm, Moun­tain Top Fraser Fir, in New­land, N.C. His busi­ness was cho­sen to sup­ply this year’s White House Christ­mas tree, a 19-foot spec­i­men on dis­play in the Blue Room.

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