This story originally appeared on Marfa Public Radio.
Chopping down your own Christmas tree in the Davis Mountains has been a holiday tradition in Far West Texas for more than a decade.
The tradition’s not happening this year, but that’s because these “Christmas tree hunts” weren’t just for fun, and the conservation efforts behind them have been a success.
Every December in recent years, people in the Big Bend region have hiked into the mountains near Fort Davis, saws in hand, for the old-fashioned holiday joys of cutting down your very own organic, free-range Christmas tree.
The Texas chapter of the international Nature Conservancy owns the Davis Mountains Preserve, the site of the tree hunts that’s usually closed to the public, except for on special days.
It might sound strange if you’re not a conservationist or an ecologist, but the reason the conservancy let people in to cut down trees is to help save other trees.
West Texas has lost a lot of Ponderosa Pines over the past decade, mostly from drought, wildfires and beetle infestations. (The Preserve lost about 70% of its population.) But Ponderosas also compete for resources with other, more abundant trees like the Piñon Pine.
So letting people cut down some of the Piñons helps the Ponderosas survive.
Deidre Hisler, the project director for the preserve, says at this point, it’s mission accomplished.
“Simply put, there’s just no trees available to be harvested,” she says. “The public has really done a bang-up job for us in thinning out some of those trees.”
The tree hunts also served as a free way to get that thinning work done. Now, the conservancy’s hired crews armed with chainsaws to continue the job in other parts of the preserve where the hunts haven’t happened.
Ecologists are still counting on the public to help restore Ponderosa Pines in the region.
This year, instead of the tree hunts, the conservancy’s giving away about 500 Ponderosa seedlings, in the hopes West Texans will help sow new populations on their own properties.
Hisler says this doesn’t necessarily mean the Christmas tree hunts are gone forever. She says ecologists will re-assess whether they’re needed year-by-year, and while she understands some might mourn the loss of the tradition this year, she’s not worried.
“I understand, you know, it’s a beautiful ritual, but that’s why we decided to do this seedling [program] so that people could actually plant some live Christmas trees in their yard.”
The Davis Mountains Preserve will still be open to the public this year on two Saturdays – December 5th and the 12th. Most of the 500 Ponderosa seedlings have already been given away or spoken for – only about 50 remain. Those will be given away on a first-come, first-serve basis on the preserve’s open days.