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Conserving Balsam Boughs
By Tom Robertson
December 15, 1998
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The gathering of balsam boughs for twisting and weaving into evergreen holiday products is a long-standing tradition in Minnesota. What used to be a family activity has grown to be a $30-million-a-year wreath-making industry. But increased harvesting has made usable boughs harder to find, and it has forced the industry to take steps to protect balsam trees.

MINDY BOWMAN'S FAMILY has been making Christmas wreaths and other evergreen products for about 35 years in Bemidji.
Bowman: These people are making cedar sprays. They cut balsam and cedar, cover the balsam.
The company, Minnesota Wood Products, employs 120 people for about eight weeks a year, producing more than 100,000 wreaths, sprays, and centerpieces for sale by Boy Scouts, high school bands, and other non-profit organizations in 22 states. Bowman says natural evergreen wreaths have one huge advantage over plastic ones: the smell.
Bowman: When our boxes arrive, that's the comment that I think we probably hear the most is that they open up the boxes and it's just that smell of balsam, and Christmas is just overwhelming to someone who's not used to that.
Bowman buys about 200 tons of balsam boughs each year from people like Arnie Peterson of Northome. Peterson, a retired construction worker, has been cutting boughs for about 10 years. He says it's tough work.
Peterson: You gotta like the woods. It takes a special individual to really like to bough pick. If you really enjoy the woods and are willing to work hard, it's hard work, and if you're willing to do that, you'll enjoy it.
On a good day, Peterson can cut 900 to 1,000 pounds of boughs, but he says it's a highly competitive business and not getting any easier. Cutters can get about $300 per ton. But while boughs were once readily accessible along the sides of roads, Peterson must now go deep into the woods to find them.
Peterson: It's getting harder and harder, because the boughs are so far back in the woods and you gotta carry them out. You put a string in your pocket and you just keep hiking. There's nothing right along the roads left. And you just keep hiking until you find the trees suitable for it.
There has been concern over the past decade that a growing wreath industry and intensified harvesting of balsam boughs was beginning to take a heavy toll on the trees. This past spring, federal and state land managers, wreath industry representatives and others got together to form a partnership aimed at protecting and sustaining the balsam bough resource. Howard Zeman is a Chippewa National Forest employee and partnership coordinator. He says one of the main goals of the group is to educate bough cutters on proper harvesting techniques that won't damage the trees.
Zeman: There's no question that improper cutting hurts and damages the balsam tree. We've had people in the past just breaking branches instead of cutting them properly with the proper tools. We've had instances where people have cut the whole tree down. That's illegal.
The partnership this fall sponsored three northern Minnesota workshops for bough cutters, which included demonstrations of proper cutting and how wreaths are manufactured. The group is also distributing literature with the same message. The measures seem to be working. Joe Ahern owns Evergreen Industries, a manufacturing plant based in Inver Grove Heights. He's also a partnership member.
Ahern : They set down some parameters that pretty much reduce the waste and improve the quality of boughs that are being harvested. We've seen this year that the length and the type of bough that we get is much better than we have in prior years, and this just makes it easier for us.
Back at the wreath manufacturing plant in Bemidji, Mindy Bowman agrees the industry is doing a better job at policing itself.
Bowman: I really think there's been a general awareness that it is a finite resource if you do it wrong, and it's a renewable resource if you do it right. And I really do believe our boughs have been better since the education process has been brought to the forefront.
Bowman prepares, somewhat reluctantly, to wrap up the seasonal work she began in October. She says her operation is like Santa's Workshop.
Bowman : It's a fun business. Christmas is my favorite time of the year.
And Bowman's employees, too, can't help but get caught up in the spirit of the season. Donna Anderson is clipping and crimping a bough for a wreath. She says the natural magic works at her home, too.
Anderson: Oh definitely. My kids say when I come home that I smell like Christmas . They're tickled pink. They're ready for Christmas, too.
The balsam bough partnership will meet again this spring to reevaluate its efforts.