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Feel good about your Christmas tree with help from Southwest Colorado conservation group

San Juan Mountains Association doubles impact of wildfire mitigation efforts
The San Juan Mountains Association harvested about 350 white fir trees this year for its annual Christmas Trees for Conservation fundraiser. The trees were harvested to reduce wildfire fuel near Junction Creek in San Juan National Forest, finding a second use for trees that would normally be burned or turned into wood chips. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

As winter nears, wildfires often slip to the back of the mind.

But this holiday season Durango residents can decorate their homes with their own slice of wildfire prevention.

San Juan Mountains Association opened its Christmas tree lot on Friday, repurposing white firs harvested from wildfire mitigation efforts in the San Juan National Forest.

“This product would otherwise be going to waste, whether it’s chipped, burned or chopped and left in the woods. It’s just so on mission for us,” said David Taft, conservation director for San Juan Mountains Association.

“Not only are we making the forest healthier, but we’re also able to keep our programs running as a byproduct,” he said.

San Juan Mountains Association’s Christmas Trees for Conservation program is in its eighth year.

More than 60 volunteers ventured into San Juan National Forest near Junction Creek to cut down young white firs that could exacerbate wildfires.

“By taking the smaller trees, we are able to remove what’s known as a ladder fuel,” Taft said. “If there were a fire to come through, the worst thing you can have is ladder fuel because that allows a fire to get from the ground to those smaller trees up into the crown of the bigger trees.”

“It can take what would otherwise be a really healthy, low-intensity ground fire to a full-blown crown fire that’s killing all the bigger, mature trees,” he said.

The U.S. Forest Service identifies where volunteers should thin, and then volunteers work within a few hundred feet of roads, where fires often begin, cutting down trees, pulling them to the road and trailing them into Durango and the Christmas tree lot.

“At the scale of things that we need to do, we can’t really address them just as an agency,” said Tim Leishman, a silviculturist with San Juan National Forest’s Columbine Ranger District. “We have to have groups like Mountain Studies Institute, San Juan Mountains Association, Southwest Conservation Corps and other groups really help us meet those goals.”

San Juan Mountains Association’s Christmas tree program has grown in recent years from 100 white firs in 2017 to about 350 this year. Almost half of the trees the San Juan Mountains Association will sell this year are from fire mitigation efforts. (MK Thompson/San Juan Mountains Association file)

The Christmas Trees for Conservation program also creates a second use for trees logged for fire mitigation.

“It’s super important for us to utilize local trees like this for Christmas trees and be able to keep a great organization like San Juan Mountains Association well-funded,” Leishman said. “Many times what we run into with a fuels project is that nobody really wants that material.”

The program has grown in recent years from 100 white firs in 2017 to about 350 this year. Almost half of the trees the San Juan Mountains Association will sell this year will be from fire mitigation thinning.

“We’ve been gradually shifting the blend (of Christmas trees) to more of the local trees than the tree farm ones,” Taft said. “As people get more and more aware of the program and why we’re doing it, people seem to be really supportive of that.”

The Christmas tree sale not only creates healthier forests, but it also supports ongoing conservation and education. The proceeds pay for San Juan Mountains Association’s other programs, such as its successful Forest Ambassador and Wilderness Crew programs.

“We see just explosive growth of recreational use on public lands, (and) we recognize the need to step up our stewardship efforts,” said Stephanie Weber, executive director of the San Juan Mountains Association. “The tree lot really helps with conservation education ... but it’s also helping to provide a foundation for our stewardship efforts.”

The Christmas tree lot is in the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad parking lot near Camino del Rio and College Drive.

In addition to white firs, the San Juan Mountains Association also sells balsam firs farmed in Wisconsin. White firs sell for $10 per foot ,while balsam firs cost a little bit more.

People travel from as far away as California and Texas to buy the trees, Taft said.

Last year, the lot sold out in three weeks, and Taft expects this year will be similar.

The organization started with 850 trees when it opened on Friday and had already sold 350 as of Monday morning. Hours for the lot are noon to 6 p.m. Sundays to Fridays, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays.

No matter the tree, any purchase will support healthy forests and ongoing conservation efforts.

“We think either way you're going to have a pretty good option,” Taft said. “If you want fewer tree miles, then the local option would be your best bet. And that conservation story, we think, is really compelling.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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