"The Canaan Valley fir helps make West Virginia landscapes among the most beautiful in America."
-Rodney Bartgis, state director for the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia
About this time every year, Rodney Bartgis goes Christmas tree hunting. For Rodney, the state director of The Nature Conservancy’s West Virginia program, the seasonal ritual involves selecting and cutting a live tree from the Monongahela National Forest, a swath of public land that covers nearly a million acres in West Virginia’s high country.
The U.S. Forest Service issues permits each year which allow individuals to cut down certain trees for Christmas. The permits encourage the removal of non-native evergreens or trees from crowded young stands, helping the land managers to grow a healthy, natural forest.
“Sometimes, we cut the tree for our home,” Rodney says. “And sometimes we bring some of the Conservancy staff with us, and we cut one for the office in Elkins.”
It’s fun, it encourages a healthier forest and is better for the environment in other ways, and a wild conifer adds holiday cheer to any room.
But there is one type of evergreen Rodney wouldn’t cut from the wild – the Canaan Valley fir.
These beautiful, hardy firs – also known as the West Virginia balsam fir – are native to isolated high-elevation pockets in the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia.
In recent years these trees have become popular Christmas trees because for their beauty and practicality. The medium-sized tree has lustrous dark-green foliage and a slender tip that gives it a stately appearance. Its popularity, though, can be credited to the fact that it will grow in places like Ohio, where the soils are often clay-heavy and wet.
“More and more Christmas tree farms are finding that the Canaan Fir is a species that can be successfully grown in heavier, wet soils,” explains Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association.
But while the Canaan Fir is thriving on tree farms, it is struggling in the wild. The species faces a combination of threats including habitat loss, climate change and a forest pest called the balsam woolly adelgid, a wingless insect that infests the crowns of fir trees and causes slow decline and eventual death.
The Nature Conservancy is working hard to protect the Canaan fir in its native range. In recent years we’ve protected thousands of acres of high elevation forest throughout the Central Appalachians and we have worked with the U.S. Forest Service on planting new stands of fir in appropriate places in the high country.
“The Canaan Valley fir is one part of the complex system of high elevation forests that make West Virginia landscapes among the most beautiful in America,” Bartgis says. “We rely on the support of our members and our relationships with partners to protect these forests for future generations.”