Christmas Trees Keep Michigan in the Green
When you think “Christmas tree,” you probably think about a 7-foot-tall blue spruce set up indoors decorated with lights, tinsel and a star on top.
But that month-long branch of a Christmas tree’s life cycle is actually the shortest aspect of its eight- to 12-year transition from seedling to compost, even if it is the part with the highest profile.
For some people, finding ways to extend their “tree time” can get interesting.
For the past 30 years, Bill Yancy has been saving the trunks of his family’s Christmas trees after the holidays are over. On the Sunday after New Year’s Day, he carries his tree to the curb for the city recycling truck and uses a handsaw to remove about 6 inches from the bottom.
“I don’t know why I started, but I always assumed that I’d find something to do with them eventually,” the Garden City resident says. “It seemed a shame to recycle a perfectly good trunk.”
His wife, Sharon, has another theory.
“He’s just sentimental,” she teases, giving her husband a good-natured poke in the ribs. “He just likes to hold on to Christmas as long as he can.”
A metal bin in the garage has actually been the one holding on to the last 29 Christmases, a tradition that started the year the Yancys’ first daughter, Nina, was born. They now have three children, all of them long since grown and moved out. But they all get together Thanksgiving weekend for their annual trek out to Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm in Oxford to pick out their tree.
“It’s like the official start of the season,” Sharon Yancy says. “Bill and (son) Nick like the tree hunting and cutting part, but my favorite is after they set it up in the family room, how the whole house smells like Christmas. I sometimes go out on the porch and walk back inside just so I can smell it again.”
Christmas trees are more than just a holiday tradition in Michigan
The Yancys are among 1.7 million Michigan families who make a tradition out of cutting their own trees and bringing them home each year. There are nearly 100 Christmas tree farms across the state, some of which supply trees throughout the country. In all, it adds about $27 million to the state’s economy.
“And after all that, I still hear from people who say they use (artificial) Christmas trees because they don’t want to kill a tree,” says Amy Start, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. “Christmas trees are an agricultural product that benefits our economy and is beneficial to the environment. I can’t imagine what Michigan would look like without Christmas tree farms.”
Start said roughly 27,000 acres of forest land are dedicated to commercial Christmas tree production in Michigan, accounting for a lot of the greenery you see on your drives through rural areas. And that greenery comes with an added perk: Younger trees are much better at photosynthesis – that is, absorbing carbon dioxide and pumping out oxygen – than older trees are. Given that most Christmas trees are harvested between 8 and 12 years old, and the fact that three trees on average are planted for every one cut, that equates to a lot of clean air.
While Christmas trees are an important part of the holiday tradition for many families, all of Michigan’s trees – including white pines, sugar maples, black walnuts, maples and red oaks – are important year-round to Michigan. Christmas tree farms are a spinoff of sorts to the state’s forest-based economy, which accounts for $20 billion annually and supports more than 96,000 jobs statewide.
Michigan is home to some 14 billion trees that inhabit almost 20 million acres of forest land, about one-fifth of which is managed by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. For the past 12 years, two independent organizations – the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative– have certified that the DNR’s forest management practices are sustainable. Active management of the forests is essential to responsible environmental stewardship.
Active management of the forests is essential to responsible environmental stewardship, and it’s the core value of forestry, a science, art and practice that consists of studying, managing and using best-practice methods to make efficient use of the natural resources provided by forest lands.
Michigan is dedicated to the sustainable management of our natural resources, including our beautiful forests,” says Debbie Begalle, chief of the DNR’s Forest Resources Division. “Carefully managed and sustainable forests, whether they’re in the heart of Detroit or the Upper Peninsula, are essential for a healthy environment and the center of what forestry is all about.”
Furthermore, independent certification of responsible forest management and manufacturing practices ensures accountability of forest products suppliers and allows credible claims regarding the environmental attributes of the products. This means Michigan residents can rest assured that everything from the recyclable paper products they use every day to the floors of the college basketball courts they see on TV are actually contributing to the overall health of the state’s woodlands.
“Forests are much healthier when they are actively managed, which includes cutting trees, planting new ones and fighting disease,” Begalle says. “The long-term health of forests require cutting, allowing new trees to grow, removing the underbrush that fuels forest fires and slowing down the spread of disease and insect infestation by removing clustered, older trees.”
Careful forest management allows young trees and plants to grow. They in turn provide food and shelter for ground-dwelling wildlife. It also means better camping, hunting, hiking, and skiing grounds for Michigan’s people.
A renewable resource
“If (tree farmers) were cutting down all their trees every year, they’d put themselves out of business real quick,” Start says. “But once you explain to people that this is a sustainable process, that it benefits Michigan and helps people around the country celebrate their family Christmas traditions, that makes it easier for them to understand.”
This is one of the many misconceptions people have about forestry – the idea that loggers will eventually cut down all the trees, leaving none behind. As the science of forestry has developed, it’s been proved that a forest that’s actively, properly managed by humans is much healthier, resulting in a host of benefits, including increased access to durable, renewable wood products. Of course, trees being a natural product, they’re 100 percent recyclable.
For Christmas tree buyers, the final step in the life cycle of their Christmas tree is up to them, with multiple recycling options at their fingertips. Most cities pick up Christmas trees after the holidays and turn them into the mulch that’s used on city playgrounds and landscaping projects. Nature lovers can choose to wedge the trunk into the ground outside a window of their home to create a natural birdfeeder and squirrel hideaway.
“Or you can use it for some sort of art or woodworking project,” Start said. “That’s the great thing about trees. There are so many options.”
Which brings us back to that bin in Bill Yancy’s garage. Earlier this year, he was struck by inspiration at a local art fair when he saw an artist who transferred color photos to wood. After a little research, he found that it’s a relatively simple process involving laser-printed photos, a transfer medium and a little elbow grease. So in October, he fired up his band saw and cut his three decades’ worth of old trunks into disks, which he then painstakingly transformed into coasters using family photos downloaded from Facebook and scanned from old albums.
“When our whole family gets together, including all the cousins, there are exactly 30 of us, so it worked out perfectly,” Yancy says. “Everyone’s getting coasters this year.”
But now that the bin is finally empty, does this mean his tradition has ended?
“I’ll probably keep doing it,” he says. “But I’ve got 30 years to think about what my next project will be.”
So when the Yancys are around their tree this year, they’ll make memories but also – in a way – they’ll be paying their respects to all the sustainable trees and forests that are important to everyone in Michigan.
If you opt for a choose-and-cut Christmas tree this year in Southeast Michigan, keep an eye out for a free origami Christmas tree. About 50 participating Christmas tree farms will have them on hand, or you can download a copy at Michigan.gov/ForestsForALifetime. When you’re there, you’ll also learn how Michigan keeps all its trees healthy and abundant so that future generations will always have a tree for life, and forests for a lifetime.