For the first time in nearly 74 years, the Optimist Club of Bozeman won’t be selling Christmas trees.
An annual tradition since the club’s founding in the late 1940s, a Christmas tree shortage — which is affecting Montana and most of the U.S. — has thwarted the local club’s second biggest annual fundraiser.
Doug Ritter, a club member and the self-proclaimed “Christmas tree guy,” has been helping the club put on the Christmas tree sale since he became a member in the 1990s.
His dad was a club member too and Ritter remembers tagging along as a child with his dad to cut down wild trees up Hyalite for the fundraiser.
But for decades now the club has sourced trees from two local plantations in the Flathead Valley. In August, both suppliers called Ritter to let him know they couldn’t get him his trees.
“We went from two suppliers to no trees in the space of about two weeks,” Ritter said.
One of the plantations didn’t have enough in stock. The other plantation, owner, located just north of Thompson Falls, told Ritter that the dry, hot summer had scorched most of his trees.
Over the next two months, Ritter spent his free time trying to find replacement tree suppliers. The club usually stocks about 250 to 350 trees.
He inquired with the Optimist Clubs in Great Falls and Billings about their tree suppliers, tried to find other local Montana plantations and even inquired out of state for suppliers in Idaho and Michigan. He found little success.
“It became apparent at some point that we’re just not going to get trees,” Ritter said. By early October the club tentatively decided not to hold a Christmas tree sale.
Last week, the club officially axed the tree sale. It’s one of the club’s larger fundraisers, behind its annual Garage-a-rama event.
Money raised during the Christmas tree sale go to the winter clothing project, where the club partners with nonprofit Thrive to provide winter clothing to families and children.
Ritter thinks it’s the first time the club has not sold trees since 1947 or 1948.
“It’s very significant for us,” he said.
The tree shortage is hampering the holiday spirit around the U.S. The American Christmas Tree Association recommends people buy their Christmas trees as early as possible this year.
About 85% of U.S. households who celebrated Christmas in 2020 used an artificial tree.
This year, supply chain issues will mean fewer artificial trees will be on store shelves and with higher price tags, the ACTA said.
With live trees, the pandemic isn’t to blame.
Jerry Cashman, of Cashman Nursery, said the 2021 shortage is primarily related to the 2008 recession.
Cashman, who has sold Christmas trees every year at his Bozeman nursery since it opened in 1976, said plantations across the country planted fewer trees from 2008 to 2011 after a decline in demand.
Plantation grown trees usually take anywhere from seven to 11 years to mature, so by 2021 there just simply weren’t enough mature trees to meet demand, he said.
Factor in an abnormally dry year in the western U.S. and you’ve got yourself a tree shortage, Cashman explained.
The ACTA said in a news release that some farmers across the Pacific Northwest had reported losing up to 90% of their crops to droughts, heat waves and wildfires.
Overall, Montana has fared better than other states because the state has a number of local plantations, Cashman said.
For most Montanans, they might notice fewer selections of trees not commonly grown in Montana — like Frasier or Balsam firs — and should expect a price increase.
“Our trees might go up 5% to 10% in price,” Cashman said.
Cashman said his nursery was still able to get enough trees this year. He usually stocks about 1,500 trees, which he sources from plantations in Kalispell.
“We won’t let Bozeman run out of trees,” he said.
And of course, Bozemanites will always have the luxury of getting a wild cut tree. Free permits to cut wild trees on Forest Service lands can be found online or at district offices.