Environmentalists Encourage 'Green' Christmas Trees

Environmentalists are encouraging people to cut down holiday trees instead of buying artificial ones. The argument: Buying a real Christmas tree reduces your carbon footprint, helps keep the ecosystem healthy and supports local tree farms absorbing carbon.

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Here in the U.S., environmentalists are encouraging people to chop down Christmas trees this year. Non-profits like the Nature Conservancy say it will help save the planet.

Reporter Kelley Weiss went to a tree farm in Northern California to see what families have in mind when they're picking out their Scotch Pine.

Unidentified Child: Oh, daddy, come here. I've got to show you something.

Mr. CHRIS PINION: What do you want to show me?

KELLEY WEISS: Families can cut down their own Christmas trees here at the Silveyville Tree Farm west of Sacramento. The Pinion family from nearby Davis brought their three-year-old daughter to the farm to do just that. They trek out in the field to pick a tree and breathe in the fresh scent.

(Soundbite of sawing)

WEISS: Chris Pinion cuts a tree down. He then slings the Monterey Pine over his shoulder. As he lugs it back to the car, he says this is a family tradition.

Mr. PINION: I think it's better to get a live tree rather than an artificial tree. I mean, who knows where all that stuff's being made from. You know, it's probably safer just to have something natural around your family.

WEISS: And a lot of people here just don't want a plastic tree in their living room.

(Soundbite of door shutting, cars driving by)

WEISS: In the parking lot, Tim Acosta is strapping down his freshly cut tree to his car. For him, it's a guilty pleasure because he's not so sure it's good for the environment.

Mr. TIM ACOSTA: It's not. It doesn't seem like it is. We're killing a green tree.

Ms. VANESSA MARTIN (The Nature Conservancy): There is a common myth out there that purchasing an artificial tree is actually the greener option.

WEISS: That's Vanessa Martin with The Nature Conservancy. She's also here at the Christmas tree farm. She points out thousands of trees still standing. Farmers don't clear-cut the trees. She says they only harvest about 10 percent of them a year. And, she says, that means they're hundreds of millions of Christmas trees around the country still growing.

Ms. MARTIN: Not only is this forest of Christmas trees beautiful and smell great and part of a time-honored tradition, they're hard at work cleaning our water and our air and helping our climate and wildlife.

(Soundbite of walking, crackling branches)

Mr. TED SEIFERT (Co-owner, Silveyville Tree Farm): We have basically 13 acres in trees, Monterey Pines. We have Scotch Pine, Leland Cyprus...

WEISS: Silveyville Tree Farm co-owner, Ted Seifert, says he's using his degree in wood science from UC Berkeley to help run a carbon-neutral operation. For every tree cut down, he says they plant another. And with the higher-elevation pines, they do what's called stump culturing.

Mr. SEIFERT: These are actually probably 10-year-old stumps, and this is actually probably the second generation of turn-ups on both of these trees here on the left.

WEISS: Seifert points out two small new turn-up trees actually sprouting from stumps.

Mr. SEIFERT: It's just another way. Instead of having to plant a tree, we just use what's there.

WEISS: Seifert also says when you buy a tree here, you avoid getting an artificial one that's likely shipped over from China. That dramatically cuts down on its carbon footprint. And, he says, even though you can reuse artificial trees year after year, they are made from plastic and can't be recycled like real ones.

Mr. SEIFERT: I think there's a resurgence for the live or the green trees.

WEISS: Seifert says there's a range of options for a green tree. The gold standard is to buy a live, potted tree and plant it after the holidays, or drive to a nearby tree farm to cut down your own or pick one up at the local grocery store or tree lot. And Seifert says the bonus: This kind of environmental awareness should help his farm. He thinks business will be up about 20 percent this year, and industry numbers predict an increase in sales, as well, for both real and artificial trees.

For NPR News, I'm Kelley Weiss.

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