In the planter outside the University of Idaho Library, a white sign with red lettering serves as the public’s only warning about the “essence” of the evergreens.
David Rauk, the campus horticulturalist, said it’s one of many signs posted next to patches of evergreen trees on campus that have been sprayed with a natural repellent — a precaution taken to protect the trees from people who consider furnishing their homes with free Christmas trees by illegally cutting them down.
UI Facilities Services first began their evergreen repellent program in 1992, the year Rauk began working for the university.
“Prior to that, we had been losing several evergreen trees a year to Christmas tree thieves around December time,” Rauk said. “It gets pretty expensive and time consuming to keep replacing these trees.”
Rauk said including labor costs, replacing stolen trees can cost up to $900. Although this is considered a misdemeanor theft in Idaho, some states classify theft above $500 as a felony.
In the past, Facilities sprayed the trees with animal scents, most often the natural essence of skunks, to deter individuals from cutting down the trees. This year, Rauk said the repellent applied to the trees is a less expensive synthetic skunk scent.
Four or five ounces of the synthetic skunk essence are mixed with two gallons of water and a sticking agent, similar to molasses in consistency, that helps the repellent attach to the trees and prevents weather erosion.
Rauk said the cold weather may not wash off the scent, but it does suppress the smell of the repellent. When a tree is cut down and taken inside, the warmth of a building allows the smell to spread.
“The cold air really traps that odor,” Rauk said. “However, if you take the tree inside, then the warm air will emulsify the material, and then a little goes a long way and you’ll certainly be able to smell it.”
The repellent is applied four weeks before Christmas and wears off shortly after the holiday. No harm is done to the trees. Rauk said several national parks and other institutions use similar, if not the same, practices to protect evergreens from being cut down during the holiday season.
“This is done all over the country,” Rauk said. “A lot of evergreen trees of a small size have problems with theft, so it’s nothing new.”
Before the program began, two to three evergreens were stolen each year. Now, Rauk said one tree is cut down every five or six years.
“We’ve lost several (trees) over the many years, but not like it’s been beforehand,” Rauk said. “So it’s successful, I think.”
While the repellent has been effective, Rauk said some theft still occurs. One year, an evergreen was stolen that had been dedicated to an individual on campus, and even the bronze plaque placed on the lawn in front of it was stolen.
“It’s sad to see that kind of thing happen,” Rauk said. “That’s one of the few we’ve lost since the program, but it was an important tree at the time.”
Rauk said Facilities has never caught anyone in the act of stealing an evergreen, they have only found the tree stumps following the theft.
“I’m guessing the person brings the tree inside the house and finds out it’s smelling up the house and quickly disposes of the tree,” Rauk said. “People see it outside and think it’s just another abandoned Christmas tree.”
Rauk said about 100 trees on campus are sprayed each year. The white warning signs are placed next to some of the trees that are sprayed, but not all of them.
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