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New Mexico State University

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Christmas Tree Harvest Cuts into Wildfire Threat

MORA - As you catch the sharp scent of a Christmas tree from one of New Mexico's forests this holiday season, enjoy the fact that this year's harvest had a dual purpose: lighting children's eyes with cheer and slowing the spread of wildfires that have ripped through thousands of acres of forest in recent years.

John Harrington, superintendent of New Mexico State University's Mora Research Center, right, discusses how this year's New Mexico Christmas tree harvest could help with controlling wildfires. NMSU researchers are advising forest landowners like Mora rancher John Bartley to cut or harvest smaller, understory Christmas trees that provide a fuel ladder for fire to reach tree canopies. (12/11/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Norman Martin)

"Many of this year's harvested trees were actually fire prevention treatments," said John Harrington, superintendent of New Mexico State University's 118-acre Mora Research Center, about 50 miles northeast of Santa Fe. "These smaller trees needed to come out because the provide a fuel ladder for fire to reach tree canopies."

Many of New Mexico's lower elevation forests, which are traditionally ponderosa pine, are slowly being taken over by shade-tolerant species like Douglas-fir and white fir that normally occur at cooler, higher elevations, but can grow well in the shade of ponderosa pine forests. These two species also happen to make excellent Christmas trees.

By removing these understory trees, land owners are reducing the potential for
catastrophic fire by taking away these intermediate fuels. And, there's an economic incentive, as well.

"Reducing the fuel loads in New Mexico's forests is an expensive proposition," Harrington said. "In some cases, thinning costs $400 to $1,000 an acre. Being able to harvest 50 to 60 Christmas trees in that process obviously can cut down the cost of these wildfire treatments." The wholesale price of a Christmas tree is about $10, he said.

Historically, New Mexico Christmas trees have come from forests, Harrington said. There are plantation-grown Christmas trees produced in New Mexico, mostly in southern New Mexico, with some others scattered around the state. Most of the southern Christmas tree plantations produce Eldarica or Afghan pines, while the others produce a variety of native and nonnative Christmas trees. Still, most of the New Mexico-grown Christmas trees are so-called wilding trees harvested from the forests.

In recent years, NMSU forestry researchers have studied management of forests for sustained Christmas tree production. For instance, Harrington has advised a number of forest owners on tree thinning patterns to produce more wild Christmas trees.

"We have thinned back and really opened things up," said John Bartley, owner of the Bartley Ranch, a 4,000-acre ranch with 3,700 acres in timber located 17 miles west of Mora.

This year, U.S. consumers will buy an estimated 33 to 35 million real Christmas trees, according to the St. Louis-based National Christmas Tree Association. Christmas trees can be traced to 16th-century Strasbourg, Germany, now part of France. Back then, families decorated
fir trees with colored paper, fruits and sweets.

Those who want to carry on the tradition of a cut Christmas tree need to remember another fire precaution, said John White, DoZa Ana County horticulture agent with NMSU's
Cooperative Extension Service. "Add water to the tree holder base," he said. "People are often surprised how much water Christmas trees require."

Keeping the base full at all times is recommended. Also, if you get a tree from a lot, recut the bottom of the trunk. This allows the tree to absorb more water and stay fresher. But time is the enemy, especially with trees that are up for more than a month.

"Just remember that they don't last forever," White said.