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Proposed rule would protect Oregon Christmas trees

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is shoring up its reporting rules meant to prevent a replay of last year’s illegal shipment of infested North Carolina-grown Christmas trees mixed with clean Oregon trees, a move meant to protect the environment and the state’s Christmas tree brand.

Agriculture officials want anyone who imports Christmas trees to notify inspectors so trees can be inspected immediately for pests to ensure they don’t taint Oregon forests nor Oregon’s brand as the top exporter of clean Christmas trees.

Such safeguards were not in place in November 2018 when an Oregon City tree farm imported North Carolina trees infested with bugs and illegally sent them to California big-box stores as Oregon trees.

Christmas tree importation to Oregon is rare, and ODA officials believe the inspection protocol will help keep last year’s scare from returning.

“We want to make sure these trees are clean and not a threat to our natural resources or our Christmas tree industry,” said Helmuth Rogg, director of ODA’s Plant Protection and Conservation Program Area.

ODA has proposed that anyone importing Christmas trees or cut evergreen branches such as fir boughs to notify the agency prior to arrival. ODA officials will contact them within one business day of the notification, and any imported trees must be held for at least two business days for potential inspection before they are sold.

ODA is taking public comment on the proposal, including a public hearing at 11 a.m. Thursday at ODA’s Salem headquarters.

A similar temporary rule was enacted earlier this month.

Close to 400 Oregon commercial tree farms sold about 5 million Christmas trees last year, with about 90% of them exported to California and as far away as the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam, according to ODA.

Last year, about 8,000 Frazier firs were shipped from Happy Valley Christmas Trees in North Caroline to McKenzie Farms in Oregon City, with both companies owned by the same person, according to ODA.

About half of them were sent as Oregon-grown trees to Lowe’s stores in California, where they were discovered to be infested with elongate hemlock scale, an exotic Asian pest that has become established in the Eastern United States but could live in other fir species like those native to Oregon.

Once discovered, the infected trees were destroyed or exported to North Carolina, which is the nation’s second in Christmas tree sales, Rogg said.

AP file photoA trailer loaded with hundreds of wrapped Christmas trees heads southbound on Rt. 295 near Yarmouth, Maine, on Friday, Nov. 21, 2008. Agriculture officials want anyone who imports Christmas trees to notify inspectors so trees can be inspected immediately for pests to ensure they don’t taint Oregon forests nor Oregon’s brand as the top exporter of clean Christmas trees.