Sustainable Christmas trees sprouting up

December 21, 2011

In the past, a consumer had mainly two choices: real or artificial.  Another voice has joined the debate over the “best” Christmas tree. “Sustainable” trees have hit holiday stands to become a viable option for green consumers.
But what does the label “sustainable” mean and are these trees worth the premium price?

The most trustworthy of sustainably grown trees are akin to organic produce. Farmers have to go through an independent certification process to meet environmental standards that are designed to protect the land, water, and local wildlife.

Several organizations on the West Coast offer certification. SERF – Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farms – is a project of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the Oregon State University Extension.  Farmers submit a sustainability plan and are visited by inspectors from the Department of Agriculture.

Farms may also join the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers, a group of Christmas tree farmers who hope to imprint more standards on the “sustainable” label. They require applicants to submit to an independent auditing process with on-site farm inspections. 

There’s a reason for the growing market in sustainably grown trees. Conventional tree farming typically involves the use fertilizers and pesticides, and monoculture cropping practices can be detrimental to the local ecology.

That’s something Santa & Sons, which cuts 25,000 trees a year at a farm in Philomath, Oregon, south of Portland, seeks to correct. Owner Mark Rolfs said he uses minimal amounts of fertilizers to prevent nitrogen loading of a nearby river, and he tries to avoid using pesticides by allowing certain weeds to grow around the trees that support beneficial insects.

And then there are the elk, which consider tree buds a delicacy.

“We tolerate a herd of elk on our property instead of allowing hunters to push them off,” said Rolfs, who sells wholesale and at a yard in Los Angeles with CECG certification. “We put on bud caps to keep the elk from grazing.”

But not all trees with the “sustainable” label are certified, and this is where things get murky.

Members of the Cal Forestry Club operate a Christmas tree lot in Berkeley every December and sell trees they label as “sustainable.” The trees are donated by Sierra Pacific, a logging company that clear-cuts trees in the Sierras. The students rent a truck, drive to the Sierra Nevada, and cut down several hundred trees.

Sierra Pacific has gotten it’s fair share of criticism. But the students counter that their cutting methods benefit the forest by thinning the number of trees before the commercial harvest.

“We pick trees that aren’t going to make it to maturity,” said Ariel Thomson, a fourth-year forestry major. “By cutting down these trees, it allows bigger trees with more economic and environmental value to survive.”

The money raised from selling Christmas trees – about $7,000 last year – goes towards their attendance at an annual conference. Some consumers are satisfied with the arrangement.

“It helps the department, provides a nice tree, and does something good for the earth,” said Christine Jegan, a campus neighbor, who bought a tree this year. “If they are available again, I would buy one next year.”

Are those Sierra Pacific trees truly “sustainable”? Like many products on the green market, it’s up to the consumer to decide.

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