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A Wisconsin Christmas tree farm is being turned into an ecological preserve

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In the season of decking the halls, many families head to farms to bring home fresh-cut trees. What happens when those trees aren't actually healthy for the landscape on which they sit? Susan Bence with member station WUWM in Milwaukee brings us this report of how one Wisconsin farm is trying to transition into an ecological preserve.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What about this one here?

SUSAN BENCE, BYLINE: On a brisk Saturday morning in southeast Wisconsin, the Gresbach family is busy searching for the perfect tree. After quiet deliberation, Jake starts sawing his first Christmas tree ever, a 7-foot fir, to the delight of his 14-month-old son.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Say yay, Daddy.

JAKE GRESBACH: Shout timber.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Look at our tree.

BENCE: This 40-acre tree farm is a ghost of its former self. Now, one day a year, families like the Gresbachs traipse through its remaining stands to find the tree of their dreams.

HELEN HOLTZ: Ten minutes before nine, like, the whole thing was full. We were, like, worried for a second. We ran out of hot chocolate within the first 15 minutes.

BENCE: That's Helen Holtz. She directs land management for the Waukesha County Land Conservancy, which for four years has been transforming this farm into a preserve.

HOLTZ: This preserve used to be an oak savanna and prairie. And so we're eradicating these pines and spruces, which really don't belong here in Waukesha County. Even if they are native to Wisconsin, they're not technically native to this area of Waukesha County.

BENCE: So what kind of pines would be? Or no pines at all?

HOLTZ: There are a few pines that could be found throughout, like white pines, but a lot of these are Norway spruces.

BENCE: Norway spruces may ooze classic Christmas, but Holtz says they do little for local biodiversity.

HOLTZ: They can host maybe one or two species of insects, but a bur oak, which is native to this area, can host over 300 species of insects.

BENCE: Holtz points to a sea of native plants her group seeded, along with young bur oaks scattered across the landscape. She says the combination will gradually help biodiversity bounce back. The creek that courses through the preserve is also getting some much-needed attention.

NEAL O'REILLY: This area sits right at the headwaters where the stream starts, and the stream drains down into a chain of lakes.

BENCE: That's Neal O'Reilly. He teaches conservation and environmental science at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and heads the Waukesha County Land Conservancy's board. He says for years, soils have been eroding off the land and ending up in the lakes.

O'REILLY: That soil is carrying with it nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. And phosphorus is a major concern because it contributes to algae blooms.

BENCE: Those algae blooms deplete oxygen from the water system, putting aquatic life at risk. O'Reilly says the one-day holiday event is a win-win.

O'REILLY: We're trying to get these pines and spruce trees off the property, and so instead of just cutting them down and throwing them away, we thought, why don't we let people come in and harvest them as Christmas trees? You know, it gives them a chance to have that go-out-and-cut-it-in-the-woods experience. We charge a small fee, so we're making some money that goes right back into restoring the property.

BENCE: Back at the preserve, Susan Goeb and her son are loading a massive white spruce.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Now, what if I try to lift the front, and you lift your...

BENCE: Goeb is used to cutting down her own tree, but she'd never heard of this preserve in progress.

SUSAN GOEB: I saw this on Facebook, and I'm like, what a great idea. Let's help conservancy, give them some money, help them clear the land and give a tree a good home.

BENCE: She's leaving with a tree and newfound inspiration. Goeb will be back, she says - maybe next time as a volunteer. For NPR News, I'm Susan Bence in New Berlin, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.