EDITORIAL – Red tape strangles Cayman’s supply of Christmas trees

Rick Fletcher, a recently retired forestry professor with the Oregon State University Extension Service, helped establish standards for certifying Christmas trees that are grown on Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farms, such as Sunrise Tree Farm in Philomath, Ore., where Fletcher confers with owner Betty Malone. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.) https://flic.kr/p/aR3kFx

“Due to the overwhelming difficulty experienced last year with the importation process, we have decided to not bring in Christmas Trees for the 2018 season.”
– Trees4Life, local charity

Decorating evergreens may be an “imported” tradition, but it is one that our country has enjoyed for decades. Each year, thousands of Christmas trees are available for residents wishing to celebrate the holiday season with festive and fragrant conifers.

That is, until recently.

Last year, inspection holdups at the Department of Agriculture (DoA) jeopardized the sale and distribution of fresh Christmas trees until nearly the beginning of December. Officials held up all shipments of trees after finding “live pests” in several containers. (Does anyone know the scientific name for “humbugs?”)

The trees were, eventually, treated and released for sale to the public, but lingering uncertainties and continuing delays have been the final straw for several retailers who say they have been forced by the government to navigate shifting requirements in recent years.

Vigoro Nursery said in a statement that it is not importing Christmas trees this year because of “continual import regulation changes that have made it extremely tedious and risky.” Similarly, Cost-U-Less said, “We struggled last year to meet island requirements and this year is no different.”

The DoA is a small department with serious responsibilities, and when it fails to meet those responsibilities, it generates big headlines. For example, the DoA is responsible for controlling the stray dog and cat populations (a problem that remains widespread despite the best supplementary efforts by several charities), as well as investigating instances of animal abuse and neglect (practices that, unfortunately, remain nearly as ubiquitous as the aforementioned strays).

One of the DoA’s duties is to prevent the importation of invasive pests. We do not know if the “pests” the DoA said it discovered in last year’s shipments of Christmas trees posed a threat to Cayman’s ecosystem – for the sake of this editorial, let’s assume they did – but even so, the department has had nearly a year to devise a workable solution to last year’s debacle.

The consensus among retailers seems to be that the DoA has failed.

Officials’ initial idea was to require growers, in Canada, to spray the trees before they are shipped to Cayman. The only problem is that the spray DoA wanted growers to use is banned in Canada. (How could the DoA not be aware of this? Anyway, why are they advising the use of a poison that has been banned in a large first-world country like Canada?)

The eventual workaround is for growers to apply a “pre-treatment” pesticide to the ground that is absorbed by the trees as they grow. The DoA’s green light came “too late in the season” – or the entire process was too much of a hassle – for some importers, including Trees4Life, a local charity that donates proceeds from tree sales to support worthy causes.

Christmas trees are supposed to be wrapped in colorful lights and garlands – not bureaucratic red tape.

Cayman is not the only island that imports Christmas trees; surely, there are a slew of “pro-tree/anti-pest” jurisdictions whose examples we could follow.

Some retailers, including Hurley’s and Every Bloomin’ Thing, said they will suffer through the DoA’s holiday headaches in order to import evergreens for Christmas. In the meantime, Cost-U-Less will sell artificial trees, and Vigoro is planning an “environmentally friendly” alternative – details to be announced later.

If all else fails, some residents may end up borrowing a page from our forebears (and perhaps a machete from an iguana culler) – and hunt for a suitable Casuarina, Lancewood or Sisal Tree to place in the living room or “sand yard.”

Pass the tinsel. On second thought, better make that eggnog (well-spiked, please) ….

If you value our service, if you have turned to us in the past few days or weeks for verified, factual updates, if you have watched our live streaming of press conferences or sent an article to a friend... please consider a donation. Quality local journalism was at risk before the coronavirus crisis. It is now deeply threatened. Even a small amount can go a long way to sustaining our mission of informing the public. We need our readers’ financial support now more than ever.