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The Surprising Reason Austin Chose an Artificial Tree for the Texas State Capitol

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT Austin

You can’t miss the Christmas tree outside the Texas State Capitol this year. Standing 45 feet tall, it’s adorned with 137,000 LED lights, and synched to seasonal music.

It’s also, in a break with tradition, artificial.

Each holiday, the Downtown Austin Alliance is tasked with trimming the tree just outside the Capitol gates. 

(Disclaimer: KUT partners with the DAA for an annual Sing-Along and Holiday Stroll on the Capitol grounds.)

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT Austin

DAA associate director Molly Alexander says the alliance has put up the tree each of the nearly 20 years the group has been around. And while it’s used real trees in the past, the DAA went with an artificial tree this year for a surprising reason: the devastating wildfires that swept through Central Texas last year.

“We have always worked with Texas tree farmers in Bastrop County to source and locate grown trees,” Alexander says. “However, after the Bastrop fires, it was a real challenge to find one that was over 15 feet, 20 feet that would work at that area of the capitol.”

Alexander adds that considering all the logistics involved with putting up a tree of that size – the surrounding sidewalk, sightlines toward the Capitol dome and more – the DAA “came to the conclusion that the best thing going forward was to get, and to have made, an artificial tree that worked well in that area.”

“We had to figure out what’s the best solution moving forward in terms of design – and having a tree that we didn’t have to worry about year after year after year” was the best course of action, Alexander says.

The lack of locally sourced trees is a reminder of the continuing impact of the wildfires on Bastrop and surrounding communities in Central Texas, more than a year after the last fire was extinguished. KUT News compiled survivors’ oral histories in a special one-hour documentary, “Forged in Flames: An Oral History of the Labor Day Wildfires.”

Back at the Capitol, the tree lights up with local renditions of holiday favorites at the top and bottom of each hour, from, now until Jan. 6.  

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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