27 December 2010

The dark side of Christmas greenery products

One of the first posts I wrote for TYWKIWDBI when I started the blog in December 2007 was a piece about "Balsam bough thieves" (content below).  This week I notice that PBS has addressed basically the same problem with a short video, which I've embedded above.  Here's the summary from PBS Newshour:
It's a familiar sight this time of year; the live Christmas wreath on a door or a bit of holiday-themed greenery on a table. Those products are a big business in the Pacific Northwest, where forests are harvested for greenery, boughs, moss, ferns and other plants for holiday and other gift giving.
Our PBS colleagues at KCTS in Seattle reported recently on the seamier side of this industry, which involves forest product smuggling in Washington State. Lesley McClurg looked into how illegal harvesting of forests harm businesses and workers in the short term and the environment in the long term.
And here's a repost of my 2007 item:

One of the classic sensual pleasures of the holiday season is the scent of balsam permeating a home or place of business. Balsam trees, wreaths, and swags are used to decorate living rooms, doors, windows, and mantelpieces. In doing so, we probably never question where the balsam comes from; if we give it any thought, we assume it is harvested from commercial tree farms or represents a reuse of forestry waste products.

This fall I visited a lot (in a platted subdivision) where I’ve been clearing brush in preparation for building, and encountered two young men with a pickup truck. I thought they were hunters, but when I greeted them and saw no guns they told me they were searching for “balsam balls” (which I interpreted as “witches brooms”). I told them they were on private property, and cordially suggested that in the future they make use of a plat book to ascertain which properties were public and private. They indicated that they would continue searching, but wouldn’t disturb anything near the driveway, and they headed into the woods.

When I returned the next day I was shocked by the devastation they had wrought on the property. About a dozen balsam trees - all within a few yards of the driveway - had been stripped of branches. After a moment’s reflection I realized that they had been hunting “balsam boughs” for the holiday decoration trade.

Perhaps more disappointing than the theft itself was the technique they had used:

This wasn’t a matter of pruning a few branches from each tree; rather, the trunks had been stripped bare to the height reachable by a grown man wielding a lopper. Each of these trees is now essentially standing deadwood. And this from two young men whose heritage should reflect a deep respect for the natural environment.

The Minnesota DNR reported in 2004 that approximately 4000 tons of balsam boughs are harvested annually from our forests, each ton yielding roughly 400 wreaths; the state’s balsam bough industry had annual retail sales in 2004 topping $20 million. The vast majority of this trade is managed well, with bough-collecting permits obtained at state, tribal or county offices, depending on where the worker plans to gather material. As my experience shows, there are at least a few “rogue” workers who respect neither private property rights nor the environment.

Update 2009:  Originally posted in December 2007.  I've subsequently barricaded the driveway of my lot, but on other private lots in the woods I've seen the "topping" of large balsams to create Christmas trees - sawing off the top 6-8 feet of a 20 foot tree.


  1. Scum. Them, not you.


  2. Next time come out with a shotgun. They'll get the idea.

  3. It's not just holiday evergreens. Last spring 2 guys with a van cut all the flowering stems off my lilac bushes. In my front yard. On a main road. While my neighbor watched. The police suspect they sold them in NYC for several thousand dollars.

  4. We've had firewood poachers clear cut sections of woods on my father's farm. They cut fence and the lock off a gate to bring in a trailer to haul off the oak.


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