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Live Christmas Trees - the Ambassadors for a Greener Holiday Season

Jace Goddard & Amy Androff
USDA Forest Service

“Why would you cut down that beautiful tree?”

Finding a live Christmas tree on a National Forest can be an outdoor adventure. However, at 84-feet, the Capitol Christmas tree is a lot more logistically intense than your average tree. (Photo credit: James Edward Mills)
Finding a live Christmas tree on a National Forest can be an outdoor adventure. However, at 84-feet, the Capitol Christmas tree is a lot more logistically intense than your average tree. (Photo credit: James Edward Mills)

That’s the question the USDA Forest Service U.S. Capitol Christmas tree crew most often receives. And it’s a question well worth exploring.

But the answer is more nuanced than one might first expect.

So, shake your mental sleigh bells, breath-in the fireplace’s cozy wood smoke smell, grab a hot cup of something to warm your hands, and journey with us through the science of why a white fir called Sugar Bear is the ambassador for a greener holiday season than that artificial tree waiting at your neighborhood big box store.

Sugar Bear, this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas tree, comes from the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California. The area where Sugar Bear grew from a seedling into a massive 84-foot white fir was recently part of the 2020 August Complex fire, the largest recorded wildfire in California history.

Inclusively named “The People’s Tree,” the white fir was in an area badly damaged by the Complex fire and needed to be thinned. Land managers use thinning, the selective removal of trees to help mitigate extreme wildfires like the 2020 August Complex fire, to restore forest health in areas that might be impacted by overstocked stands. 

Dense forests lead to unhealthy forests.

Jace Goddard is a Public Affairs Specialist from the Pacific Southwest Research Station. The Capitol Christmas tree has been nearly a year long adventure in the making. As part of a dedicated communications team and in conjunction with the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree whistle stop tour team, she tirelessly helped to make the Capitol Christmas tree a magical success. (Photo credit: USDA Forest Service)
Jace Goddard is a Public Affairs Specialist from the Pacific Southwest Research Station. The Capitol Christmas tree has been nearly a year long adventure in the making. As part of a dedicated communications team and in conjunction with the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree whistle stop tour team, she tirelessly helped to make the Capitol Christmas tree a magical success. (Photo credit: USDA Forest Service) 

The tree cookie, the cross section of a tree trunk used to show the growth rings of the tree, tells the story of Sugar Bear’s life. The eight-story white fir’s first 20 years were stunted as it grew in a densely packed area where it competed with other young trees for sunlight, water, and nutrients. The trees that don’t get enough nutrients often die leaving behind the fuel that feeds catastrophic wildfires. Sugar Bear’s removal helped to thin an overcrowded area of forest and bring holiday joy to our nation.  

Live Christmas trees are a cradle-to-cradle product—a product that mimics the regenerative cycles of nature. They are 100% recyclable and biodegradable, often finding their way into mulch that nourishes next year’s gardens, paves hiking trails, or cushions playgrounds. As a sustainable agricultural crop, Christmas trees are also carbon sinks, pulling carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in their cells. In addition, Christmas tree farms provide healthy wildlife habitat, mitigate erosion and support farmers and local economies.

Live Christmas trees are green multi-tasking holiday superstars.

Artificial trees, which are considered a cradle-to-grave product, or a product that will eventually end its life in a landfill, are predominately manufactured in China. The most recent consumer guesstimate averages Americans replace their artificial tree after about ten years of use. And because most artificial trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other chemicals, both harmful to people and the environment, they can live on in a landfill nearly indefinitely after disposal. Basically, ten months of use for an eternity in a landfill.

A road to adventure, snowfall on the Six Rivers National Forest access road. Most National Forests allow harvesting of Christmas trees. Permits are available starting in October of every year. (Photo credit: USDA Forest Service)
A road to adventure, snowfall on the Six Rivers National Forest access road. Most National Forests allow harvesting of Christmas trees. Permits are available starting in October of every year. (Photo credit: USDA Forest Service)

But aren’t artificial trees a less costly expenditure than buying a new live tree every year?

Yes. However, live trees are an investment in the local farmers who raise them and the green services they provide our environment for the approximately seven years it takes them to grow to their Christmas tree height.

Finding a live tree to bring home—whether from a local national forest, corner lot, or tree farm—for the holidays is an indelible family adventure, that creates a priceless family tradition.

Jace Goddard, a Forest Service employee with the Pacific Southwest Research Station, and a tireless member of this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas tree team who accompanied Sugar Bear on the first leg of its over 3,500-mile journey to Washington D.C., shared her annual family Christmas tree tradition with us. With a sparkle in her eye and a jolly smile, Jace recalled—

6.	The Goddard Family has gotten their Christmas tree from a National Forest since Jace was a child. Jace’s parents are in the background while Jace (right) prepares for a snowball from her sister (left). Snowmobile Park, Lassen National Forest, 1982.
The Goddard Family has gotten their Christmas tree from a National Forest since Jace was a child. Jace’s parents are in the background while Jace (right) prepares for a snowball from her sister (left). Snowmobile Park, Lassen National Forest, 1982.

“Every year my family would make the two-hour trek up Highway 44 from our home in Redding, CA to pick out the perfect Christmas tree. As I close my eyes, I can distinctly hear Eddie Rabbitt’s “I love a rainy night” playing on the radio and feel the air turning colder as we made our way eastwardly, climbing higher in altitude until the rain turned to snow flurries. I remember the excitement building when I would hear the blinker begin to click on this two-lane highway because I knew that there was only one reason to turn on a blinker; to make that left-hand turn into the wilderness.

When I say “my family”, I mean ALL of my family. On average, our family caravan was at least 6-8 vehicles, driving together higher and higher, while the snow got deeper and deeper. We NEVER worried about the snow or about getting stuck or sliding off the road. Don’t get me wrong, these things happened regularly. In fact, it was a source of fun for us.

An SUV would get stuck, and everyone would stop and, with great enthusiasm, pitch-in to help. 

Once everyone was parked, my uncle would clear out an area for lawn chairs, ice chests and a fire pit.  He was magic. He could always make a fire in the snow. We would alternate between warming ourselves in front of the fire and eating the food we had brought up, which usually consisted of fried chicken, chili, and various lunch meats, before stomping off into the white wilderness looking for the “perfect” tree. Once we found our tree, my dad would use his little hand saw to cut it down and carefully drag it through the snow and back to camp. There, the tree would get tagged (you need a permit to cut Christmas trees on a National Forest) and loaded into the truck.

Jace (middle), her sister (right), niece and cousin (left), and family dogs sitting around the campfire warming up after a long Christmas tree search. Snowmobile Park, Lassen National Forest, 2006.
Jace (middle), her sister (right), niece and cousin (left), and family dogs sitting around the campfire warming up after a long Christmas tree search. Snowmobile Park, Lassen National Forest, 2006.

My family made a whole day out of this tradition. We would eat and visit and play. We would see family that we rarely saw the rest of the year. We would talk about year’s past and plan the next year. It is still one of the best memories from my childhood and it has followed me into adulthood where we have now introduced a whole new generation to this tradition.

When we got home, we would unload the trees and then collapse from a satisfyingly exhausting day. I have memories of falling asleep on the floor, my snow clothes still on, by the fire with my dog at my side. There’s something about holiday traditions, the smell of the tree and of rain turning to snow, that still bring me an overwhelming sense of calm. My mom has since passed away, but like any worthy tradition, the memories of going to get our family Christmas tree always remain.”

To go on your own family adventure and bring home a live tree from a national forest, start your planning here:  https://www.recreation.gov/tree-permits. Follow Sugar Bear’s journey at: www.uscapitolchristmastree.com

https://www.fs.usda.gov/features/live-christmas-trees-ambassadors-greener-holiday-season