Woe Tannenbaum? US Capitol Christmas Tree hails from Northern California. Is that a good thing?
President Biden said Tuesday that conserving our forests is indispensable.
It’s right there in the transcript from his speech to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow:
“Preserving forests and other ecosystems can and should play an important role in meeting our ambitious climate goals as part of the net-zero emissions strategy we all have,” the president said.
Unfortunately, the news came too late for “Sugar Bear.”
Sugar Bear is an 84-foot white fir from the Six Rivers National Forest in northwest California that at the moment is lying horizontal on a flatbed trailer somewhere near Sacramento.
It is at the beginning of a circuitous 3,500-mile route through the lower part of the lower 48 on a three-week journey to the nation’s capital, where, in a special ceremony on Nov. 19 on the U.S. Capitol Lawn, it will officially become “The People’s Christmas Tree.”
Every year the honor is bestowed upon a single tree from one of the nation’s 154 national forests. This year was California’s turn, an honor the Golden State has basked in four other times since House Speaker John W. McCormack kicked off the tradition in 1964.
Back then, The People’s Christmas Tree was a 24-foot Douglas fir purchased for $700 ($6,200 in today’s dollars) from Buddies Nurseries in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania.
It was actually a live tree, which seems more in keeping with Biden’s declaration, and it was planted on the west lawn of the Capitol.
Unfortunately, it lived only a couple of years. Other nursery trees were planted with varying degrees of success until 1970, until someone hit on the idea of having the U.S. Department of Agriculture supply trees from the nation’s national forests.
Ever since, foresters have ventured into the wild every year in search of the most beautiful, stately and majestic tree they could find. So they could cut it down.
California’s first contribution, in 1986, was a 54-foot Shasta red fir from the Klamath National Forest, and the most recent, in 2011, was a 65-foot Sierra white fir from the Stanislaus National Forest.
Of all the California trees — and most of the others in the history of the program — Sugar Bear, so named by the folks who found it, is by far the largest.
According to U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Samantha Reho, who is helping to spearhead this year’s effort, the tree’s trunk is on the thinner side, only about a foot in diameter, but its branches measure 20 feet across and it weighs approximately 3,500 pounds.
By counting Sugar Bear’s tree rings, foresters were able to tell that sometime around 1950, a mommy tree and a daddy tree who loved each other very much decided to make a baby tree. Put another way, Sugar Bear was seven years younger than President Biden when it was “harvested” a couple of weekends ago.
The Six Rivers National Forest, the land it came from, encompasses parts of Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte and Siskiyou counties and stretches from the Oregon state line almost down to Mendocino County.
It is nearly a million acres of wild rivers, rugged mountains, steep terrain and majestic forests. Alas, those forests have been ravaged by drought, wildfires, beetles and tree-boring insects, sudden oak death, human encroachment and some kind of root-killing fungus called phytophthora lateralis.
In other words, Sugar Bear was a survivor.
We asked Reho, the Forest Service spokeswoman, about the wisdom of killing a perfectly fine specimen of nature’s handiwork.
She assured us that Sugar Bear was taken from an area of the forest that needed to be thinned.
Sugar Bear, by the way, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
When we noted that from the Facebook Live video of the tree’s demise, it looked like the area around it was pretty clear, Reho said that it was because they had thinned out all the underbrush so the U.S. Capitol Architect (yes, this position really exists) could get a good virtual look at it before deciding Sugar Bear was the one.
Which brings up the question: If the area had been cleared and Sugar Bear wasn’t in danger, why cut down a perfectly good tree, a question we asked fully cognizant of the fact that we work for a media company in an industry that uses a lot of paper. (In our defense, it’s virtually all recycled paper, but we digress.)
In any case, Reho replied that Sugar Bear was only one tree out of a vast number of them, almost as if to say that we’d failed to see the forest for the, well, tree.
Or something like that.
She also mentioned the benefit in the rolling ecology exhibit — which is privately funded — that will accompany Sugar Bear’s earthly remains across the country, educating hundreds, if not thousands of people along the way.
In addition, the project, whose theme was “Six Rivers, Many Peoples, One Tree,” provided opportunities for a lot of different people to get involved, like forestry students from Humboldt State University, who helped explain not only the eco-diversity of the Six Rivers area, but also the heritage of the original Native peoples who live there.
She has a point, but it still seems a bit ironic to take a live tree, which pulls about 40 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere a year, and replaces it with oxygen, and cut it down and put it on a truck to teach people about the benefits of trees.
And about that truck — which is also privately funded, by the way — it’s going to put out a lot of carbon on the way to D.C. One calculation we found estimates 161.8 grams of carbon dioxide per ton-mile, meaning it will belch roughly a ton of carbon into the atmosphere on its journey.
And the kicker is that there’s not just one tree. Up to 130 of Sugar Bear’s brothers and sisters will be trucked in to keep him company.
Which all sounds perfectly lovely, except that it seems like a lot of carbon and not enough oxygen.
Who knows? Next year, maybe President Biden will take his own forest proclamation to heart and issue a Christmas tree pardon like the ones the White House turkey gets every Thanksgiving.
If not, just consider it business as usual in Washington.
They get the tree, we get the stump.
John D’Anna is a senior news director at The Press Democrat who was an environmental blogger in a former life. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @azgreenday.