Woe Tannenbaum — the darker side of the ‘People’s Christmas Tree’

November 4, 2009

Everyone in Arizona it seems is all giddy these days over an impending execution.

It’s supposed to go down this weekend and will be attended by all kinds of dignitaries, singers, Apache Indian dancers and even school children.

We even got an invitation to share in this special moment.

The instrument of death in this case will not be lethal injection, however. Most likely it will be an axe or a chainsaw, or possibly both.

And the sad thing is, the accused committed no crime, other than being stately, majestic and beautiful.

On Saturday, folks will gather up in the White Mountains of Arizona, a region whose gorgeous forests have been ravaged by wildfires and bark beetles, to pay homage to the most beautiful tree they could find left standing.

And cut it down.

This year, Arizona has been chosen to supply the “People’s Christmas Tree,” which will stand outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington this holiday season.  Each year a different state gets the so-called honor, and this is Arizona’s first time. The excitement has been building. This week’s arborcide will be feted in all the press, and kids across the state have been asked to make ornaments to adorn it.

An exhaustive search began after last year, and this summer a fine blue spruce specimen from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest was finally chosen above all others. It is 85 feet tall — the tallest tree since the Capitol tree tradition began in 1964 — and has a canopy of some 30 feet.

Some folks say it could have sprouted before Father Kino came to Arizona in the 1600s, but most likely its seedling days were about 200 years ago, or roughly the time Abe Lincoln was born.

And irony of ironies, it’s being called the Aldo Leopold Centennial Tree, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the year the great author and environmentalist came to work for the U.S. Forest Service in what was then the Arizona Territory.

Now, we enjoy the pagan tradition of the Christmas tree as much as anyone. Even live trees, because most of them are grown and harvested specifically for that purpose. But we think Aldo Leopold would join Druids everywhere in being appalled.

We’re guessing that nobody really thought through the environmental implications of this particular case.

Fear not. We did the math. Or actually got someone else to do it for us.

Believe it or not, there are actually formulas for calculating the weight of a living tree based on its height and the diameter of its trunk.

Esther Bowen, a graduate student in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, crunched the numbers for us and found that Arizona’s tree has a biomass of about 2,200 kilograms, which is a scientific way of saying it weighs more than 2 1/2 tons, at least half of which is carbon that is not being released into the atmosphere.

That’s just for starters. The plan is to truck this trophy around Arizona to show it off, and then take it on a circuitous path across the rest of the country so everyone can get a gander at it.

Esther found a formula that calculates the the carbon intensity of trucking — who knew? —  at  0.288 kg CO2/ton-mile. Given that the straight line from Arizona to D.C. is about 2,300 miles, they’ll  belch 1,600 kilograms — or nearly 1.75 tons of carbon into the atmosphere from that one truck alone. Actually more, because as we said, they plan to take the scenic route.

We found other calculations that indicate that if this tree were to be left online, it would continue producing as much as 100 pounds of oxygen a year while taking a similar amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

And the kicker is that they don’t plan to cut down just the one tree.

There will be 75 smaller “companion trees” apparently to keep the People’s Tree company.

Even if they’re half the size of the guest of honor, that’s 80 tons of carbon we’re pumping into the air to get them to the nation’s Capitol. And don’t forget that there’s an entire semi-truck they’ll need just to carry the 5,000 ornaments we’re shipping as part of the deal.

And we didn’t even ask who’s paying for all this, but our guess is that at least some of your tax dollars will be at work here.

We keep hoping our environmental president will issue some sort of last-minute pardon, like the one traditionally bestowed on the White House turkey at Thanksgiving, but it seems unlikely.

Which is too bad, but that seems to be the way Washington works.

They get the tree, we get the stump.

— John D’Anna




3 Responses to “Woe Tannenbaum — the darker side of the ‘People’s Christmas Tree’”

  1. John — this is brilliant! And, a bit of a downer. You’ve done a superb job of exposing the absurdity of this tradition. Now what?? Is it possible to put the brakes on this without being labelled an eco-Grinch? (Come to think of it — he was green, wasn’t he?)

  2. It seemed like an honor, but when you put it like this ….

    Maybe this is a tradition we can simply think about fondly.

  3. Alpha Says:

    This is amazing, and I’m very impressed with Esther’s calculations. What an accomplishment. And I’m really sorry that this will lead to a major cutting in the forest around the tree….

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