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Old-Growth Christmas Tree

This December, on the West Lawn of the Capitol Grounds in Washington DC will stand the 2023 Capitol Christmas Tree. Every year since 1964, this site has been home to “The People’s Tree,” cut down in one of our nation’s National Forests and carted to the seat of legislative power to be adorned with lights and ornaments.

This year’s tree comes from Monongahela National Forest, in the beautiful Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. This forest is made up of predominantly mixed hardwood stands, with some of the most important habitat for endemic species you will find in the East. While the People’s Tree (its species yet to be announced) makes its way from town to town on its tour to Washington D.C., its old-growth arboreal neighbors in the forest are at risk of being harvested for timber. The Monongahela National Forest is also home to the Upper Cheat River Project, a planned timber harvest through the U.S. Forest Service that would clear cut 3,463 acres of tree stands, many of which are more than 100 years old.

Older forests are also more effective biodiversity havens, serving as refugia as habitats are disrupted from climate impacts.

The Upper Cheat River Project is one example of a widespread practice in the Forest Service of logging mature and old-growth forests. On Earth Day 2023, President Biden announced Executive Order 14072 on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies. This order recognizes the critical importance of America’s mature and old-growth forests to combating the climate and biodiversity crises and directs federal forest agencies to conserve remaining mature and old-growth forests on federal lands. Unfortunately, the Upper Cheat River Project, and many others like it, are examples that the U.S. Forest Service has yet to respond to the President’s order.

Mature and old growth forests have myriad benefits for the health and wellbeing of all of creation, humans included. Mature trees and forests are much better at sequestering and storing carbon. As a healthy tree ages, it soaks up and stores more carbon over time. Even when that tree ages and dies, it can still hang onto that stored carbon for a long time—for decades or even centuries—as it slowly breaks down on the forest floor. Older forests are also more effective biodiversity havens, serving as refugia as habitats are disrupted from climate impacts. These resilience benefits also extend to human communities because intact forests reduce the risk of flooding, erosion, and landslides. As climate-driven events like flooding increase, it is more and more important to preserve intact forests to buffer against these impacts. Mature and old growth trees and forests have an important role to play in helping creation mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Christmas is a time to remember that the world matters enough for God to become flesh and join us creatures.

This Christmas season, when many of us host trees in our homes, is an appropriate time to reflect not only on the services trees provide, but on their witness to incarnation. It is a time to reflect on the ways that the Christmas story is not just good news for humans, but for all of creation, trees included. Christmas is a time to remember that the world matters enough for God to become flesh and join us creatures. The incarnation is good news for all of creation because it is only through Christ that all things come into being and are held together in love (John 1:3, Colossians 1:16). In Jesus’ birth story itself, from the cosmos to the stable, creation sings and witnesses the good news of the incarnate Christ. It is not hard to imagine the old-growth trees themselves clapping their hands on the night of the birth of the Savior.

In the glow of the Christmas tree lights, from the Capitol lawn to our own homes, let us remember that the very forests that birthed this symbol of hope and joy are facing a perilous future. The People’s Tree and its home near the threatened Upper Cheat River Project underscores the urgency for the U.S. Forest Service to safeguard these ancient giants that witness not only to the resilience of creation, but to incarnation itself.

Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes on Flicker

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