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Mora Scientists Celebrate Benefits of Christmas Trees

MORA -- Besides sprucing up the holidays, New Mexico's Christmas trees can make for healthier forest lands and a more robust rural economy. That's why visions of firs and spruces are always dancing in the heads of scientists at New Mexico State University's Mora Research Center.


Each year, superintendent John Harrington and fellow researchers clamber up to the swaying tops of tall trees, collecting seeds that are in demand nationwide. "Many Christmas tree producers throughout the United

States get their Douglas fir, white fir and blue spruce seed from the state of New Mexico," Harrington pointed out. Mora houses the state's forest genetics program.

To help Christmas tree growers in New Mexico, Mora scientists plant and test the seed to pinpoint the best sources -- or provenances -- within the state. They've found the fastest- growing trees come from the Gila and Lincoln national forests. White fir trees are greenest in southern New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest and bluer in the Cibola and Santa Fe national forests in the central part of the state. The bluest blue spruces come from the Gila and Santa Fe.

"We plant seedlings just as you would a Christmas tree plantation and look at the growth rate, foliage colors and foliage properties, like response to shearing," Harrington said. Christmas trees can boost incomes and provide needed diversification in northern New Mexico. However, they present some challenges for small-scale producers with limited incomes.

"Those first start-up years can be difficult," Harrington said. "But we are finding more and more people starting to put in Christmas trees along fencerows and in small blocks."

But Mora researchers are chopping down the biggest barrier to growing Christmas trees -- the time trees need to reach marketable size. It once took 12 to 15 years to grow a white fir. They've trimmed growth time to seven to nine years.

"While that's a long time compared with three years for growers in coastal Oregon or Eldarica pine growers in southern New Mexico, it's a tremendous reduction," Harrington said.

Another facet of the state's Christmas tree industry Mora researchers address is harvesting "wildling" trees from private land. Producers can manage their land for tree production and use harvests to improve the forest's health. "The cut tree is actually a really good tool for forest land management," Harrington said. "When an area is way

too dense and needs to be thinned out, this is one way to do it."

Dense stands can create a fire hazard and weaken trees, making them susceptible to pests like dwarf mistletoe, which saps strength from many of the state's Ponderosa pine stands, he said.

Harrington works with local landowners like the Bartley family, who own 4,000 acres in western Mora County's Gascon Canyon. Each year they harvest about 500 Christmas trees as part of a diversified ranching and timber operation.

"Thinning creates more open spaces, gives light and nutrients for the other trees to grow and creates a much better area for wildlife and to enjoy nature in," said Editha Bartley. "We also are very concerned about fire because we've seen some terrible ones in this area, and we know that by thinning we can prevent some of the very hot fires."

At $10 to $15 per tree, well-managed tree production can give families and the area a needed economic boost, Harrington said. "We are seeing more landowners adopt techniques to manage these stands to sustain production of

wildling Christmas trees."

It's just one more reason the Mora scientists will be dreaming of blue spruce and white fir trees long after the tree lots are empty.