Every holiday season, my family puts up a real Christmas tree in our living room to celebrate Christmas. We’re in good company – each year more than 25 million American households have a real Christmas tree. Ours is always a spruce, but families have different tastes, and there is a wide selection to choose from. To me, there’s nothing better than walking in the door after a long day and smelling a real tree. The smell is a nostalgic mix of the holidays and the outdoors. There’s no substitute. And, getting a real Christmas tree is one of the best things people can do for the environment during the holiday season.
Real Christmas trees are a renewable resource and good for both people and nature. 400 million trees are grown on tree farms across the country, providing clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, and erosion control. Most of the 15,000 Christmas tree farms across the United States are family-owned, so when you buy a real Christmas tree, you are supporting local economies and contributing to a $1.3 billion per year industry that provides more than 100,000 jobs. Compare that with artificial trees, which are manufactured overseas with fossil fuels, shipped great distances, and when discarded sit in landfills for centuries.
And real Christmas trees can keep giving back long after the holidays are over and the ornaments are packed away. So, when it’s time to take the tree down here are five ways your tree can keep giving:
Growing a New Generation of Christmas Trees for the Future!
Just by buying a real Christmas tree, you’re ensuring more trees are grown for future years. For every real Christmas tree harvested, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. During the seven or eight years that they’re growing, real Christmas trees provide all of the benefits I mentioned earlier: clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and healthy soil.
Providing Mulch for Parks and Gardens
You can join a growing number who practice “tree-cycling” by having your tree chipped into mulch for parks or gardens.
There are more than 4,000 Christmas tree recycling programs across the country, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Some of these programs are run by cities, towns or counties – usually through their solid waste disposal departments – where you drop off your tree and it is run through an industrial chipper.
New York City really does it up big with MulchFest, a two-day event held in multiple locations or drop-off sites throughout the city. You can take home your bag of mulch for your own garden, or let the city use it in one of its hundreds of parks. Last year, the NYC program recycled more than 26,000 trees!
Improving Fish Habitat
Fisheries biologists have learned that Christmas trees submerged in a pond or lake are great for providing fish habitat. Imagine your tree with its small limbs and stems providing places for small or juvenile fish to hide from predators, like glittering underwater ornaments. These reused trees also provide places where algae and insects can thrive, giving fish sources of food.
There are dozens of state and federal programs around the country that collect used Christmas trees, anchoring them to the bottom of selected ponds to improve fisheries. Among them are the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Check with your state’s fish and wildlife agency to see if they have such a program, too; many have drop-off sites. (Living trees also help fish, too, like Alaska’s “Salmon Forests.”)
Restoring Coastal Dunes
As a kid visiting my grandparents on the Massachusetts shore, I would see old Christmas trees in the dunes on our way to the beach. Those trees were being used to help rebuild and maintain sand dunes, providing habitat for birds and other wildlife and helping to protect homes and businesses on the coast.
It takes years, but eventually the trees and fences get buried in the sand and provide the foundations of a good, healthy dune. Other communities have also found that naturally built-up sand dunes are more stable and durable than dunes that are just pushed up by bulldozers.
For example, before 1992, sand dunes at South Seaside Park, NJ had been flattened to provide better access to the beach. But a Nor’easter in 1992 served as a wake-up call to rebuild those dunes. The community, with volunteers, started rebuilding the dunes, using old Christmas trees along with fencing to hold sand and allow it to build behind the structures. These sand dunes acted as a natural defense, helping to protect the South Seaside Park and nearby Midway Beach communities, when Hurricane Sandy battered the Jersey Shore.
Similar projects are being undertaken along the East Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico, providing resilient coasts and ultimately safer protection from the impact of storms. Healthy dunes also offer good habitat for shorebirds, like endangered piping plovers.
Like rebuilding coastal dunes, old Christmas trees can also help restore streambanks and improve fish habitat. In Ohio, for example, the Department of Natural Resources uses old Christmas trees to stop erosion and rebuild streambanks. The process, called evergreen stream revetments, involves anchoring used Christmas trees into certain parts of eroded streams to slow or halt erosion and create places for sediment to become reestablished and help rebuild the streambank.
These are just a few of the surprising, and important, ways that your old Christmas tree can give back by helping protect land and water, providing natural climate solutions, and connecting people with nature.
Regardless of where you tree-cycle, double check your tree to make sure it’s free of ornaments, tinsel and other items that shouldn’t be put through the chipper or could be dangerous to wildlife.
Bill Ulfelder is the Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy in New York.