This time of year, you'd think a truckload of Christmas trees would be a welcome sight, a Hallmark moment to lift the holiday spirit. But that's not the case if that truck is rolling through Boulder County with Tony Smith at the wheel and a load of local trees in the hopper.
"People flip me off and call me 'tree killer' or 'tree thief,'" says Smith, a Boulder native now in his twelfth season of abuse. "It pisses me off. I get sick of it. I passed this lady on the road two days ago and she gave me a dirty look, like I'd just shot a bunch of baby harp seals or something. I'm sure she called 911 and told them there's some guy stealing trees off of Flagstaff Mountain, because five minutes later, I'm being pulled off the road and accused of stealing trees. But that's okay. I kinda look at it as a Christmas tradition every year, to be pulled over by the sheriff's department."
While Boulderites may consider Smith an evergreen-poaching Grinch, he says that's not the case. He claims he's an ally to Mother Nature, protecting the future of the native pines he sells at a modest lot at 75th and Arapahoe streets in east Boulder. Smith's stock is made up of "salvage trees"--rejects from logging operations, castoffs from various development projects and treetops and culls thinned from the region's overcrowded forests.
This year he's waging a campaign to correct his bad reputation (he's been told he's at the top of the Boulder Police Department's list of potential pine burglars), and he's gotten help from unlikely sources: state and federal forest managers.
People in Boulder "are very aware of the forest and the ecosystem there, and they think any cutting of trees is bad," says Bob Dettmann, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service who has worked with Smith for a number of years. "But clear across the Front Range, because of the lack of fire, we've got more trees growing than would naturally occur here, and it creates a high fire hazard and increased potential for bark beetles and disease. We're trying to come up with creative ways for the marketplace to solve some of these ecological problems, and Tony fills one of those niches."
Smith's practice of harvesting the small-diameter Christmas trees the state makes available to citizens saves his office time and money, says Doug Stevenson, an assistant forester with the Colorado State Forest Service. "Our problem is that it's not really worthwhile for us to pay somebody to stand up there to sell a bunch of $7 cutting permits," Stevenson says. "Tony's much more efficient for us, and he makes use of stuff that's being wasted otherwise. And he leaves all the Charlie Brown trees behind, and in four or five years, they've bushed out, too."
"Most of the people in Boulder are tree-hugger types, and they just don't get it," Smith says of his neighbors. "I had a customer come up to me and ask, 'Do you cut trees from Mother Earth?' And I asked her, 'Do you drive a car? Do you realize you killed miners that mined the iron to make your car, roughnecks that drilled the oil to run your car, and that you're pollutin' the air right now? Why don't you take off your clothes, move out of your house and go live in the woods?' See, a lot of times people are afraid to stand up to the environmentalists because it's not kosher, it's not politically correct. Bullshit--I believe in balance. So I thought this was a good opportunity to educate them on forestry and the importance of thinning the damn trees."
According to Smith, his campaign is working. "People think what I'm doing is great," he says, "and it's funny, because I always give the earth muffins and the tree-huggers a hard time. But all of a sudden they think I'm King Earth Muffin. I had someone tell me she hadn't celebrated Christmas as an adult because she didn't believe in the practice of cutting down trees"--his voice rises into mock teary-eyed tones--"'But now that I found you, I can celebrate Christmas.' And I'm thinking, wow, people really are that stupid, aren't they?"
Smith started his enterprise with his brother Brian after the pair watched a Fort Collins logging operation leave hundreds of healthy trees to die on the ground. The two made connections with logging operators and state and federal forest managers and began removing those trees for sale. (The trees are collected in October and November and stored in water-filled trenches on area farms and on land Smith's family owns.) Until Brian Smith's death three years ago, Tony sold his stock in Fort Collins and Durango, but he's since set up shop in Boulder and in downtown Longmont to handle his brother's longtime customers. A portion of the proceeds from his sales go to his brother's survivors.
"I love doing this," Smith says. "It gets me up in the mountains and meeting new people. But it's a lot of work. I tell people, try dragging 750 trees at 10,000 feet up a 300-foot slope, on a 35 percent grade, in three feet of snow and four layers of clothes. Do you think that's insane? I mean, why don't I just act like the other tree lots and call the wholesaler and say, 'Bring me some trees!'"
On a recent evening, Smith greets customers at his bare-bones Boulder operation with a nod to a makeshift display provided by the Colorado State Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service. The bulletin board highlights some of the hazards facing the state's trees, from fire hazards and mountain pine beetles to dwarf mistletoe, a parasite that causes early mortality and deformation in Colorado trees.
"Have you guys ever been to our lot before?" Smith asks a family as they eyeball his collection of lodgepole and ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, whose skeletal appearance is a far cry from that of their bushy, farm-raised counterparts. "Ninety-five percent of our trees are Boulder County trees," he tells the group. "We take them out of thinning projects and wildfire mitigation." He continues his pitch, noting that the trees' less-than-perfect looks are an asset, not a liability. "That's a space-saver tree," he boasts of one of his many lanky offerings. "We've got apartment trees, trailer trees, condo tress, trees that fit between your wall and the hot-water heater..."
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A few minutes later, the family walks out with a fifteen-foot sub-alpine, cut from slopes near Ward. Moments later, a young couple straps a four-foot "wall model" Douglas fir to the top of their rusted car. Tonight's customers seem ambivalent about the good karma of their purchases, but according to Mark Butcher, a longtime friend of Smith's who is helping out this year, that's not usually the case. Earlier in the week, he says, a Jewish couple bought their first tree, setting aside their religious beliefs to support the cause.
"Tony is interested in helping us tell the natural-resource story, particularly in Boulder," says the Forest Service's Dettmann. "He's seen the insect and disease and wildfire problems come and go, and he wants to be part of the solution. And I think he's the kind of guy who likes to push buttons in people and get them going and tell his side of the story. We need more guys like Tony to get out there and work in the woods."
"I hug all of my trees," Smith says with a grin. "And then I cut 'em down.