Christmas Tree hunting in the Capital City

a car stops and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya two bits for that ol tree.” Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists.” A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.” from, ‘A Christmas Memory’ by Truman Capote (1956)

What will the tree be this year? Real, artificial, craft or none? If it’s none, I guess we’re done here. If it’s a craft tree made of books, beer cans, drift wood, hubcaps, twigs, antlers or whatever, good for you. Those are increasingly popular and some are just beautiful. For most of us the choice is between real and artificial.

Christmas Tree Hunting in the Capital City

Full disclosure: I am totally biased in favor of real trees. Walking through that sweet conifer/balsam smell at the tree lot when we were kids, wandering around looking at every tree, and bringing one home to set up on December, 17th (my father and my brother’s birthdays) announced that Christmas season had arrived. Today getting a tree is a matter of an axe and a walk in the woods. Either way, on December, 17th it’s always been real trees.

The industry marketeers for real and artificial trees are the National Christmas Tree Association and the American Christmas Tree Association respectively. Each claims to be cheaper and better for the environment than the other guys but over time the price is comparable and both of them have environmental problems they’re working on. Here are some Christmas tree trimmings:

Real Trees

*30 million are sold in the U.S. every year.
*Almost all real trees sold come from American tree farms.
*over 100,000 people are employed in the live Christmas tree business.
*Americans spend about $1.2 billion per year on real Christmas trees.
*Over a million acres of land are planted with Christmas trees.
*It takes 6-8 years to grow a tree to market size.
*An acre of Christmas trees provides the daily oxygen requirements of 18 people.
*A lot of people who sell live trees, like Juneau’s Minick family at Tenth Street Trees, donate part of their sales as an annual fundraiser for charity.

Artificial trees

*9.5 million are sold in the U.S. each year.
*Roughly 85 percent of artificial trees sold in the US are manufactured in China.
*Americans spend about $685 million on artificial Christmas trees each year.
*Artificial trees don’t shed their needles.
*At the end of the season you can put it in the box and store it until next year. (That may or may not be an asset depending on how much storage space you’ve got.)
*Artificial trees will last an average six to ten years.

Downside of real Christmas trees:

Commercial Trees: Most commercial trees get regular sprayings of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. Some growers spray their trees with green coloring to make them look nicer.There are standards regulating how long growers are supposed to wait between the last spraying and when the tree is cut so it’s more of an issue of environmental quality where the trees are grown than for the end buyer. Having said that, one of our kids had a lot of allergies as a child. He’d booger up and his eyes would water if he played at some (not all) houses with a tree-farm tree. Going out to have a beach fire in early January one year we found a disposed commercial Christmas tree. You could tell it was commercial because it was manicured and had one of those eight inch diameter stems. “Hey look!” So we threw it on the fire. It billowed off greenish/yellow, untreelike smoke as if we were calling the choppers into a landing zone during the Vietnam war.

Driven by public demand, the industry is experimenting with more earth friendly farming, (like using ladybugs to eat aphids instead of killing them with pesticides, keeping the trees green with fertilizer, etc). Some tree farms have been certified organic, that’s probably where we’re headed, but at this point they’re still rare.

The downside of cutting your own tree means less habitat for birds and animals, potential over cutting of young trees and cutting in places like muskegs where the trees grow very slowly. Theodore Roosevelt banned Christmas trees from the White House for reasons like that. Roosevelt’s son lobbied the head of the newly founded U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot for a tree. Pinchot explained to the President that thinning trees on productive forest land means more light, less competition for remaining trees and increased biodiversity. Roosevelt recanted and put a tree up in the White House.

Downside of artificial trees

Non-renewable PVC and metal trees often contain lead which produces lead dust which contaminates your house. A University of North Carolina research group recommended that people should wash their hands after touching the tree, that they shouldn’t let children help decorate the tree and that people shouldn’t put presents under the tree. An artificial tree might also be sprayed with flame retardants. While most artificial trees last under 15 years, they don’t break down in the landfill and will be there for centuries. Plus they don’t smell the same. Chinese factories have a bad reputation for unhealthy conditions and brutalizing workers. It takes more fossil fuels to bring artificial Chinese trees to market. On the bright side, expose’s about Chinese trees have helped our country’s artificial tree makers–who treat their workers better and don’t use lead–to increase their market share.

Other live tree options are keeping a nice little indoor potted tree like a Norfolk pine and decorating that. The city of San Francisco has a new program where they will rent you a potted tree for $90 then, after Christmas, they take it back and plant it in a tree starved part of the city. Then again, you can cut your own. Twice we’ve cut a good one in our yard—they seed in from a neighbor’s tree. Most years, like Capote’s elderly friend, we spend time in the woods looking for the right one. Hemlocks work fine if you’re only going to leave them up a week. We get spruce because the needles last longer than hemlock. Spruce needles are sharp so kids aren’t as likely to grab branches and pull the tree over.

Helpful things for getting your own Christmas tree. 1) hatchet, axe or saw. 2) Gloves that spruce needles aren’t going to poke through. 3) Some line to tie the tree to the car if the car’s not big enough to shove a tree into. 4) Attitude: Your free-range tree is like Katherine Hepburn who was a knockout because she didn’t fit the Hollywood beauty queen stereotype. You have to internalize that your tree has character and there’s not another one quite like it.

Juneau has three designated areas for cutting Christmas trees:* one near Bridget cove and two on North Douglas Highway. You can find the maps and cutting guidelines at the city website here:

The rules are simple. You don’t need a permit, one tree per household, stay in bounds, cut the trees close to the ground, scatter branches you’re not going to use, etc. When you look at the maps you’ll notice none of them include the muskegs. Every year on the way to go skiing you see people dragging trees back from the muskegs up on Eaglecrest Road—which is too bad. Those little muskeg trees can be geriatrics over a hundred years. old

When you’re looking for a wild tree consider the terrain. When trees get most of their sunlight from one direction they’re full on that side, sparse on the other. Some people with small houses go for those because you can put the sparse side against the wall to save space.  Other times you see a nice tree but when you go over and shake the snow off it turns out to be two or three trees together, none of which would work. Keep looking. Patience is a virtue.

One more option: years ago my friend Margie mentioned that she gets her tree under the power lines behind her place because small trees in the open get plenty of light. They grow fast and full. She chops with a clear conscience because they would be cut down in a few years anyway to keep them out of the lines. This would be a gray zone legal-wise but here at Woodshed Kings we operate on a needs-to-know basis. All I can say is, if you’ve cut one under the wires and hear a car coming as you’re hauling it to the road, this is a good time to channel Wile E. Coyote. Hold the tree up in front of you, run a few feet. Stop. Crouch behind it. Run a few feet. Stop. Crouch. At the road look both ways, throw it in the rig and bolt on out of there. Back at the house, when you square off the bottom of the trunk to fit your tree stand it’s good luck to save two or three inches of it to burn up in the fireplace the following year when you bring in the current year’s tree.