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A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

For Christmases yet to come, climate change threatens Maine's beloved evergreens

Jennifer Mitchell
Maine Public
John Weston looks at one of his trees that was damaged in a winter flood. He's tried to reshape the tree with corrective pruning, but he says he won't be able to sell it.

Since the 1800's in Maine, the Christmas tree has been an essential point of light for many in the darkest month of the year. But scientists say that some of the state's best-loved conifers are under threat, with extreme weather making it difficult for them to grow.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

When Ephraim Weston moved from Massachusetts to the Province of Maine, Christmas trees weren't even a "thing" yet.

"We took ownership of the property in 1799. Started out as a farm for family. Dealt in various commodities throughout the generations, moved into livestock trading and a dairy farm," says John Weston, a descendant of Ephraim who now operates this 1,000-acre farm on the banks of the Saco River, which for more than two centuries has adapted to the times.

During the Great Depression and war time, it provided vegetables for the canned goods market. When the dairy industry collapsed, the family switched to corn and other crops. But the winters in Maine were long, so Weston says growing Christmas trees — specifically Maine's native balsam fir — seemed like a good bet for a few reasons.

"The balsams are the ones that have kind of the nice shape to them, and the standard smell. Everybody wants the smell of a nice balsam tree. The ground doesn't need to be too spectacular," he says. "They don't have to have a ton of pH, you can plant them up against a woods line like we've done here, meaning they don't have to have direct sunlight all day long."

But Weston says he's already having to cope with climate impacts his family hadn't anticipated 30 years ago.

"See the curve in this one? Can you see how that's kind of curved? That's flood damage," he says, pointing to a tree.

Jennifer Mitchell
Maine Public
John Weston looking out over about 30 acres of acres of balsam fir, grown for the choose-and-cut market.

Weston says about four years ago, a heavy January rain fell on top of the snow, which caused flooding.

"Then the proceeding days after the flood waters came in, it was about 20 below at night and never got above zero, so an ice shield formed around the base of the trees," he says. "As we're standing here you can see some trees that have no lower branches."

That event bent trees and killed saplings — a disaster that will affect tree harvests for years to come. And it wasn't a singular event.

"We're standing in an approximately 60 acre field," Weston says. "All of it has been underwater. I've had what I think would be considered a hundred-year flood — we've probably had four of them in the past ten years."

Unfortunately, Weston says there's not much that can be done to protect a farm from extreme weather.

"I think everybody just wants a normal weather pattern and it's these extremes that are what we're having to deal with. I mean tornadoes in our area was unheard of. And we have almost routinely now have legit tornado warnings and tornadoes touching down. I mean, whoever would have thought of that? Growing up I certainly never would have," he says.

Jennifer Mitchell
Maine Public
The Saco River runs through part of the 1000 acre farm of crop fields, maple trees, a woodlot, and Christmas tree farm. While the river means good irrigation and fertile soil, a warming climate has led to more extreme and frequent winter flooding.

Nor would he have believed that this year, the Weston farm wouldn't even see its first frost until well into November.

So what does the future hold? Will Weston's descendants even be able to see a fir tree two centuries from now?

"Yeah, I'm going to expect no in 200 years in the wild," says Ivan Fernandez, co-chair of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Maine Climate Council.

Fernandez says it's possible that balsam firs may still exist on farms, but new strains would need to be developed for farmers to have much success.

"In cultivation, with irrigation and different genotypes, there could be the capacity to grow a balsam fir in Maine under those intensive cultivation practices going forward," he says. "But not the ones we have today, and not the way they grow them today, given the climate trajectory we're on."

Another, perhaps more overlooked threat linked to climate change is that of an invasive pest known as the balsam woolly adelgid. William Livingston with the University of Maine School of Forest Resources says that at the moment, tree growers in western Maine don't have to deal with it — but they will.

"That's been along the Maine coast for 100 years, but has been limited to the Maine coast — so it doesn't get up to Fryeburg, because of the cold winter temperatures. But the winter temperatures, the minimum temperatures that typically kill this invasive insect, are becoming less frequent," he says.

A similar pest also attacks hemlock and has recently arrived in the state.

Jennifer Mitchell
Maine Public
Nell, Weston's farm dog. The farm lies in the shadow of the White Mountains, where sudden snowmelt and winter rains can cause extreme flooding through the Saco River Valley.

One evergreen tree that might actually thrive in the coming century and beyond is the Eastern white pine. Livingston says there's some indication that white pines will be able survive and grow taller than they do at the moment as the climate warms.

Fernandez with the Climate Council says while climate effects will continue to damage balsam fir into the next few decades, he's hopeful that a new push toward climate policy will bear fruit for the second half of the 21st century, and maybe even save the firs.

"Just as some of these changes in our environment are accelerating, so will solutions. Maine has an action plan, we've got activities underway to address this, and that's the reason to be hopeful. Certainly we are. So that's my hopeful holiday message," he says.

Back in Fryeburg, Weston has his own hopes as he thinks about the farm in the centuries to come.

"Everybody wants to pass on their traditions, and their way of life to the future generation and everybody likes to think about that old New England feel of Christmas and the old farmhouse," he says. "So we certainly hope that for our lifetime that's going to be around still and for future generations to come. But having said that, yeah, we know our climate's changing."