Is cutting down a tree for Christmas bad for the environment?

Real Christmas trees are a tradition for many families – but is that a good thing or a bad thing for the environment? (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Christmas is a time for celebrating the season and a time for cutting down trees – and that holiday tradition sometimes leads to discussions about what’s best for the environment: Is it greener to buy a real tree or a fake tree, or abstain altogether?

University of New Hampshire forest resources specialist Steven Roberge explained some of the factors he weighs in determining whether cutting a tree is an environmental boon or bust in New Hampshire.

The first caveat, according to Roberge: It’s not as simple as you might think. A lot of people assume the practice is environmentally harmful, but that’s not necessarily true.

“When trees are cut in an appropriate and thoughtful manner, I have no problem with cutting trees and managing our forest,” he said.

Christmas trees are a little different because they are a crop that grows in a plantation setting. Roberge compared it with a tomato – but one that’s grown for eight to 12 years.

Habitat

Christmas tree farms provide habitat that can provide ecosystem services – or benefits to the natural world. “It’s still open space, the soils still suck in carbon and keep carbon. They filter our water. They provide places for critters to bounce around,” Roberge said. And that’s a cycle that continues, since the trees that are cut are replaced by new seedlings growing in their place.

Supporting a local farm is a way of keeping that land open and free from development. New Hampshire is losing forest and farm land at a rate of round 5,000 acres per year, Roberge said, and those acres are mostly being lost to development.

Sequestering and storing carbon

Trees are also part of both sequestering and storing carbon, which are separate but related functions. Carbon storage is how much carbon the forest retains – stored in both trees that are living and dead, as well as in leaves and soil. The older a forest, the more carbon it retains.

Carbon sequestration is the carbon that trees are actively pulling out of the atmosphere to use for photosynthesis – and this usually peaks in young to intermediate forests, or trees that are between 30 and 70 years old. Trees do continue to sequester carbon throughout their whole lives, just at a lower rate.

Roberge said the relatively small trees that are cut for Christmas are not likely to be storing a lot of carbon since they are young. They are, however, sequestering a fair amount of carbon since they are growing quickly. Because they are a crop, though, once they get cut down they are replaced by other trees that pick up where they left off.

Both carbon sequestration and carbon storage are greatly diminished when forests are turned into developments. Read more