Farm Feature: Christmas Trees

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

Cal Poly Humboldt Forestry Club students harvesting understory trees from Green Diamond Land for their annual Christmas Tree Sale.

December is a time for indoor celebration, when most people in the Northern hemisphere want to spend the majority of their time being cozy inside rather than braving the elements outdoors. Regardless of religious beliefs or cultural background, a large part of this indoor celebration for many people includes the practice of decorating a tree for the holidays. While there are many debates about the environmental merits of artificial trees in comparison to real trees, The New York Times reported in 2018 that the greenest real tree is one that’s bought locally and recycled. The annual Forestry and Logging Sports Club’s Christmas tree sale offers those living in Humboldt the opportunity to support Cal  Poly Humboldt students while sourcing a tree locally that has the potential to be composted after the festivities are over.

Finding ways to incorporate elements of nature into the home during this period of increased darkness and colder temperatures has a long history in many cultures, often serving as a reminder of life’s ability to triumph through hardship. Long before Christmas trees adopted any sort of religious significance, evergreen boughs were used as decoration to brighten spirits during pagan winter solstice celebrations. While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where the Christmas tree was born, National Geographic reported that the tradition came about in the Alsace region (considered German territory at the time) during the 16th century. It is unclear what the tree originally represented, but over time, the tradition caught on among German families and became popular all across Europe by the 18th century. German immigrants brought the tradition to the U.S., but it wasn’t until an illustration published in 1848 showcasing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with their children around the tree that the practice really took off. Now, approximately 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year according to the National Christmas Tree Association. 

Erin Kelly, a professor in the Forestry Department at Cal Poly Humboldt and the Forestry Club faculty advisor, believes that the fundraiser helps the students and the community while providing the landowner a mini thinning.  This year, the students will be cutting around 200 small, understory trees from Green Diamond land. “These are trees that have a relatively low impact, because they’re from nearby,” said Kelly. “They’re not being hauled a long distance so the carbon footprint is relatively low. They’re not making a big impact on the forest.” Additionally, Kelly pointed out that most young forests — including the ones the students visit for the fundraiser — have too many trees, usually requiring thinning in order to grow into  healthy forests. Kelly went on to say, “Another reason it’s low impact environmentally is because you’re not actually getting it from a Christmas tree farm where there’s really short rotation and the farms are more intensively managed. These [trees] are just from the woods, and the students are just removing a few trees from a stand. It’s going to grow into a forest. So to me, it’s actually a pretty nice way to get a Christmas tree.”

In addition to offering the community a more environmentally friendly option, this fundraiser helps the students involved gain necessary skills while helping them build community and connection. About 50 students from both clubs participate in the process, which includes harvesting the trees, transporting them back, collaborating to create handmade wooden stands, setting up the sales area, and running and participating in all sales shifts. This fundraiser has been going on for decades, and is a long-standing tradition for both the students and the devoted customers who come back year after year. “I also think that there’s a component of responsibility with these clubs,” said Kelly. “So the students who take responsibility for all these activities, they work with faculty advisors, like myself, but they are really responsible for it. And it’s such an incredible thing.”

All the money raised from the sale of the trees will go towards funding the various activities of both the Forestry Club and the Logging Sports Club. Logging Sports has around 70 students from various majors who compete with other schools across the West using traditional logging skills such as ax throwing, cross cut sawing, wood chopping, chainsaw bucking, log rolling (birling), and tree climbing. Although there is a lot of overlap between the two, the Forestry Club has around 50 students who are specifically focused on professional development.  They do all kinds of activities that involve the whole Forestry department, including bringing speakers to campus and going to academic and professional conventions.

The students will be selling their trees at Wildberries in Arcata, Thursday through Sunday,  12-6 PM, December 1-18. Douglas-firs are five dollars a foot while white firs are seven dollars. The students will also be selling ornaments and Forestry Department merchandise. Participating in the fundraiser and/or being a part of the Forestry Department at Cal Poly Humboldt is a point of pride and excitement for many of the students, as it plays a prominent role in the identity of the school.  

For those who are curious about a more demanding but intimate process of obtaining a tree, the Forest Service grants seasonal tree permits that allow individuals to visit certain areas and cut down their own tree. Be sure to do the necessary research and preparation if this approach is of interest. 

Whatever the method of obtaining a tree, any option involving a live tree also requires a plan for disposal or aftercare. Every year, the Humboldt Waste Management Authority (HWMA) provides a list of places to properly dispose of trees that have had all decorations removed. Included on this list is the annual free Christmas Tree drop-off and recycling event that is sponsored by HWMA, Humboldt Sanitation, Recology and Wes Green Company. Participating in this dropoff ensures that the trees get processed into useful mulch or compost. Finding an environmentally friendly way to take care of the tree at the end helps make the whole process more sustainable and ensures that everyone’s seasonal festivities aren’t doing more harm than good.