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Andy Lipkis

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Offsetting your Christmas Tree Footprint

Posted: 12/21/07 05:43 PM ET

'Tis the season to be conflicted. We love our Christmas trees and we love nature. But what about the decision of buying an artificial tree (considered sacrilege by some) versus the tradition that requires killing a tree? And once Christmastime is over, for most people it means that our "natural" tree goes out to the curb. It's hard not to wince at the sight of all those dead trees being thrown away, especially as we become more aware of the importance of trees in reversing global warming. So, is it possible to have a "green" Christmas tree?

Living trees are critical to help us respond to climate change. Healthy, thriving trees reduce carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming and they also protect us from global warming's consequences, including drought, flooding, fires and extreme weather.

When Christmas trees were growing, they provided some of these benefits, but there are also trade offs to consider. Nowadays, most Christmas trees are grown as a farmed monocrop, essentially like cabbage. So while we aren't losing vast tracts of wild forestland to provide the tens of millions of Christmas trees that are "consumed" each year, there can be impacts from water and pesticide use from tree production. Plus, once the trees are cut, they are often transported over long distances from where they are grown to get to your local market or corner lot. Then, after the tinsel comes off, they are usually transported again to landfills or chippers...each trip consuming fuel and generating both CO2 and air pollution. The happiest ending for the environment is when cut Christmas trees are chipped and used as mulch in gardens and parks where they can help save water and energy. Fortunately, the City of Los Angeles, along with many other U.S. cities, now recycles Christmas trees as standard practice.

But are living - potted - Christmas trees any better than cut? Not necessarily. It's really a matter of where the potted trees go after they've served their holiday function. Planting living Christmas trees absolutely does not work if it is merely a knee jerk or token response to purchasing a cut tree. My organization, TreePeople, has seen this approach occur over and over again resulting in failure, frustration and broken promises. Here is what typically occurs: 1) When a pine tree spends two weeks inside without natural, outdoor light, it usually dies; 2) The tree is often over-watered; 3) The "living" tree has been raised as a holiday icon and not as something that will survive and thrive afterwards, thus it is often too pot-bound to survive a transplanting; 4) The trees currently available aren't usually the best species for planting in your local area and create problems as they grow. Local parks departments once committed a very serious effort to collecting and planting these orphaned live trees...but what I've just reported are the lessons they learned and the reason many have stopped the program. Although well-intentioned this practice resulted in upset people and tons of dead or inappropriately planted trees.

The key to making a difference with trees is planting the right tree in the right place and taking care of it for the long term. Trees ought to function in our landscape in much the same way as acupuncture needles in a human body. Astonishing healing can take place when trees are strategically planted to perform specific healing functions: shading and protecting people from sunlight-caused skin cancer, filtering air pollution particles, reducing carbon dioxide while creating oxygen, saving energy, conserving water, preventing pollution. In the same sense the wrong trees planted in the wrong places--and trees planted without being cared for--can at best waste resident's precious contributions of good intentions, time and money. At worst, these trees can squander fuel and water, generate solid waste and contribute pollens that exacerbate breathing problems for sensitive people.

By taking great care of your Christmas tree while it is indoors, and paying careful attention to planning for where it will be planted outdoors, a living Christmas tree can work well. Before you proceed, think about the species - citrus do well here in Southern California and have natural ornaments! At the same time, you need to clearly identify the final "home" for your tree. If the tree is intended to be given away after the holiday, you'll need to get the consent of the "adopting family" (agency, landowner, etc.) as well as an agreement about who will maintain the tree at its final location.

TreePeople says it takes five years to plant a tree. Putting it in the ground is the easy part. Ensuring it survives takes a bit more sustained and conscious effort. But of course your planning and care pays off in beauty, shade, food, birds, health, and a more sustainable environment.

For those who are willing to invest the time, planning for the thoughtful planting of a living Christmas tree could be a wonderful family project. This could be started during family discussions this holiday season and planned throughout the coming months so that schools, parks and neighborhood streets could be prepared. This approach would also allow time for appropriate trees to be identified and provided, and long term care plans committed to.

Imagine if every family and business in your town or city went through the process of identifying, purchasing, planting and caring for the right trees. Those cities that have million tree goals, like Los Angeles, New York and Denver, would accomplish their ambitious goals in one season.

This holiday season, if you are ready to take a step into personal action, protect and enhance your community, have tons of fun, and really celebrate the spirit of giving, consider making a personal or family commitment to sustained action. This (or next) year, get engaged, get informed, then plan, plant and care for your live Christmas tree. Make it a part of your holiday gift giving, to the earth.