Christmas Tree Species Disappearing in the Wild

Dec 23, 2013

Credit Mike Powell / The Nature Conservancy

One of the most enduring traditions for many families at Christmas is decorating a live tree but one variety of fir found in West Virginia that is a popular Christmas tree is struggling in the wild.

The Canaan fir is a type of Balsam found only in the highlands of West Virginia and Virginia. But many Christmas tree farms in the region also grow Canaan firs.

“The Christmas tree farmers started growing our firs from ones that were first collected in Canaan Valley and that’s why they’re called Canaan fir,” Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia, said.

“Canaan fir has some of the good qualities of the balsam fir up north and some of the good qualities of the Fraser fir that are found farther south," he said.

While Canaan firs flourish at Christmas tree farms, in their native Canaan Valley they are struggling. That’s because of an Asian insect called the Balsam woolly adelgid, which Bartgis said started becoming prominent in the state in the late 1980’s.

“And since then it’s wiped out most of our wild balsam firs,” he said. “There’s probably only about 20 percent if that many of our wild fir trees left in West Virginia.”

Bartgis said in some places most of the adult Canaan fir are dead, but there are still some to be found in Canaan Valley.

“If you go to Canaan Valley today you can still find fairly large fir trees in the wild but they are certainly becoming fewer and fewer,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy is one of several groups, including the Mountain Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service, which have been active in trying to save the trees.

“In Pocahontas County at Blister Swamp we’ve worked with the family that owns that site to reintroduce young fir trees that were raised from cones that were gathered from the few remaining live mature trees at that site,” Bargtis said.

Similar measures are being taken in Canaan Valley at the National Wildlife Refuge and Timberline Ski Resort.

Bargtis said even though Canaan fir is cultivated widely by tree farms, it’s important to save the trees that grow in the wild in the highlands of West Virginia because they are an important contributor to that area’s eco system and part of the state’s natural heritage.

Editor's Note: This story first aired on West Virginia Public Radio on December 24, 2012.