SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) — It’s that time of the year when the debate on whether to buy a real Christmas tree or an artificial one becomes one of the hottest topics at the dinner table. While an artificial tree wins in terms of longevity, many families look forward to the experience of venturing out into the forest, choosing and cutting a live tree every year.

Here are some things Uthans should consider if they decide to go for a live tree:

Environmental impacts

Most people who choose to go for an artificial tree do so thinking they are saving the environment by not cutting down trees. In reality, most naturally grown Christmas trees in Utah come from thinning and hazardous fuel reduction operations, according to Darren McAvoy, an assistant professor of forestry at Utah State University.

“Buying a real tree is more environmentally appropriate,” McAvoy said, “partly because you’re going to be able to shred it, compost it or cut it off as firewood. It’s got other purposes, and you’re not adding anything to a landfill.”

Compared to nursery-grown Christmas trees, McAvoy said natural trees found in the forests tend to be wispy and thin. They may not hold ornaments quite as well, but they are the cheaper option. Either way, most Christmas trees in Utah are actually grown in the northwest states — Washington, Oregon, and Montana — before being brought here to be sold.

As far as disposing of artificial trees, McAvoy said he is not aware of a way to recycle fake trees, so they just have to be thrown away.

“Cutting trees can actually be good for the forest if you remove the right trees and leave the better trees,” he said.

Permits

The Utah Bureau of Land Management has been offering non-commercial holiday tree permits since Nov. 7 to cut pinyon pine and juniper trees in four areas of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest: the Evanston-Mountain View Ranger District, Heber-Kamas Ranger District, Logan Ranger District and Salt Lake Ranger District. The permit to cut down one tree costs about $20.

McAvoy said it was the first time in 25 years that he heard the Logan Ranger District will be issuing permits for Christmas tree selection, and even more surprisingly, they were the first one to sell out along with the Heber-Kamas Ranger District.

“I saw a lot of people up the canyon collecting Christmas trees over the last few weeks,” McAvoy said. “It’s a great family tradition to be able to walk out into the woods, in the snow with all the kids.”

Appearance

What makes an ideal Christmas tree? For McAvoy, the first thing he looks for is a well-balanced crown.

“All of us want a well-shaped tree that doesn’t have too many holes and isn’t too uneven,” he said.

Fragrance may be an important factor to some families, and if it is, McAvoy said they should go for pinyon pine trees, which are native to Utah.

“They’re very fragrant, but they’re a little messy if you [don’t] put down a tarp or something underneath them,” he said.

Other popular Christmas tree species include grand fir, douglas fir, lodgepole pine and spruce, which is also known as sticky spruce. One way to identify a spruce tree is through the needles — they tend to be pointy and may be painful to the touch.

“Spruce can be a more full-looking Christmas tree but those pointy needles are kind of uncomfortable,” McAvoy said.

A lodgepole pine, on the other hand, looks thin and spindly, but McAvoy said they often will have their cones still attached to them, which may add a little to the fullness of the tree.

Taking care of the tree

Bear in mind that the cut trees found in lot sales may have been cut as far back as September. McAvoy said a reasonable estimate for the life of a Christmas tree is about four months after it’s been cut.

Perhaps a better indication of the health of a tree is to watch for the needles. If they start shedding in bulk, McAvoy said it is time to get the tree out of the house.

There’s not a lot that can be done to extend the longevity of a Christmas tree after it’s been bought. Still, McAvoy recommends not bringing the tree inside the house until it’s absolutely necessary.

“Up until then, keep it in the garage or outdoors in the shade and in a cool spot, ideally out of the rain and the snow,” McAvoy said.

Before putting the tree in a holder, he suggests cutting about an inch or less off the bottom so that the fresh opening will allow water to be drawn up to the branches.

Fire hazard

Freshness is definitely something that needs to be taken into consideration when buying a Christmas tree. However, since most of the trees in Utah are transported all the way from the northwest, they may be dry by the time they get here.

In that case, one way to tell if a tree is fresh and not completely dry is to take a leaf off a tree and break it, according to McAvoy. If it crackles and breaks, then that’s not the tree to go for because not only is it old and dry, but it’s also prone to catch on fire.

“If it bends, then that tree has decent moisture in it,” McAvoy said. “It has a better chance of making it through the dry period inside your home for a couple of weeks.”

As a precaution, McAvoy also advises families not to put their trees anywhere near candles or space heaters, basically anything that may pose a fire hazard.