Accused of "taxing Christmas," the Obama administration has decided to shelve a new program promoting natural Christmas trees over artificial ones. At issue is a 15-cent fee that growers would charge themselves per tree, raising about $2 million annually to fund an advertising campaign touting the benefits of real Christmas trees.


The program would be similar to the milk industry's "Got Milk?" campaign, the White House said in a statement, and it's supported by many U.S. Christmas tree farmers. Of 565 public comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 398 (about 70 percent) favored the fee, while 147 (26 percent) opposed it.


The National Christmas Tree Association, also an advocate, issued a statement Wednesday saying the fee "is not expected to have any impact on the final price consumers pay for their Christmas tree." And in an effort to protect smaller operations from a fee they can't afford, the program would exempt any farm or importer that sells fewer than 500 trees per year.


The motivation for the campaign, which has been in development since 2008, is a years-long decline in sales of real Christmas trees. According to the Chicago Tribune, fresh-tree sales dropped from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007, while sales of fake trees nearly doubled to 17.4 million between 2003 and 2007.


Such a trend is bad for the economy, the NCTA argues, since Christmas tree farms create an estimated 100,000 U.S. jobs, and 85 percent of fake trees are imported from China. It also raises environmental and public health concerns, since most fake trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, which isn't biodegradable, isn't renewable and can release toxic chemicals such as dioxins, phthalates and BPA.


Still, many conservatives see the fee as a tax, and are unconvinced it won't be passed on to consumers. In a blog post Wednesday, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., called it "the single stupidest tax of all time," and vowed to introduce an amendment repealing the fee unless the USDA scrapped it. "[T]he whole purpose of the Obama Christmas Tree Tax," DeMint wrote, is "to take money from hard-working families celebrating Christmas and give it to clever lobbyists and businessmen running a crony-capitalist subsidy scam." This echoes a sentiment from David Addington of the Heritage Foundation, who first reported about the fee Tuesday evening. "The economy is barely growing and nine percent of the American people have no jobs," Addington wrote. "Is a new tax on Christmas trees the best President Obama can do?"


The story lit up conservative news sites, including the Drudge Report, the Blaze and, where many comment threads portrayed the fee as an attack on Christmas. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Govt is prosecuting Christians for celebrating Christmas and this further proves that point," wrote one commenter on the Blaze. Others expressed confusion about the environmental issues involved, such as this commenter at "I am so confused. On one hand I am supposed to save trees (recycle – be green) and now they want me to purchase trees that are cut down. I thought we were supposed to save the trees!"


As the NCTA points out, Christmas trees are grown as a renewable resource on farms, and growers plant one to three new seedlings for every tree they harvest. By preserving large tracts of land for cultivation, Christmas tree farms also "stabilize soil, protect water supplies and provide refuge for wildlife while creating scenic green belts," the trade group argues, and they serve as a "carbon sink" that absorbs carbon dioxide from the air. And although a fake tree can be used for multiple years, the NCTA says the average U.S. family uses it "for only six to nine years before throwing it away, where it will remain in a landfill for centuries after disposal." Real trees, on the other hand, can be recycled and regrown every year.


In a statement to news outlets on Wednesday, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich rejected claims of a Christmas tree tax, but confirmed that the USDA will delay the fee for now. "I can tell you unequivocally that the Obama administration is not taxing Christmas trees," Lehrich said. "What's being talked about here is an industry group deciding to impose fees on itself to fund a promotional campaign, similar to how the dairy producers have created the 'Got Milk?' campaign. That said, USDA is going to delay implementation and revisit this action."


For more information about the proposed fee — and the Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996 that allows it — check out this Federal Register summary, this explanation of the law, and this list of existing promotion programs.


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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

U.S. to delay 'Christmas tree tax'
Amid an uproar from some conservatives, the Obama administration will delay an industry-funded effort to promote real Christmas trees over plastic replicas.