Retailers will tell you that the holiday season begins on Thanksgiving, but for many Americans it begins on the day they get their Christmas tree. The tree is a house guest destined to stay through December (and often a bit of January) and will be introduced to family and friends. As such, it's best if you know where your tree comes from and feel comfortable talking about how you met. The best place to find a tree with a bit of personality? One of the country's many National Forests, which open to tree seekers every December. According to Jane Leche, Colorado's Front Range Christmas Program coordinator, the best part of finding your coniferous Christmas buddy on public land is that you'll actually be doing a public service. Still, the process can be a bit complicated.
"People have been cutting down trees on public land since day one, but you can't just wander out there and start cutting anymore," says Leche, who estimates that 30,000 people participate in the program. "You have to have a permit and know the cutting area – get all the information – and be familiar with the process."
In Colorado – as in Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Vermont – day-specific permits are available from local branches of the forest service for $10 or less. Getting a weekend permit can be difficult because many participants in the program want to make a Saturday of it, but weekday permits are still available in the Front Range and elsewhere. Each permit specifies a specific area, typically far removed from main roads, where Christmas tree hunters can prowl the woods for trees with trunk diameters of six inches or less. The Forest Service provides helpful information on which species can be taken and which species are preferable. Lodgepole pines are a perpetual favorite, as are Douglas Firs. Spruces are beautiful, but have sharp needles that can make hanging ornaments a painful process.
Leche says that tree cutters are actually doing nature a service by trimming back stands of trees that create the so-called "fuel ladders" that help forest fires grow into infernos. Clearing out the smaller trees also helps sunlight get through to other forms of flora. Leche suggests that participants try not to succumb to the temptation to cut down larger trees with picture-perfect tops, but, she notes, bolder cutters can make unsightly lower branches into wreathes and decorations. Responsible tree hunters use handsaws and slice through more moderately sized trees about six inches from the ground. They also come prepared.
"There's a big safety factor," Leche explains. "We're not talking about a tree farm; it's the wild. We recommend that people only go between about 8:30 am and 2:30 pm, because they'll wander around a bit trying to find a tree and it gets dark early. We also recommend minding the weather, dressing in layers, and bringing a thermos with something warm."
The sudden shock of warm air can be damaging to a freshly cut tree. Leche recommends cutting an extra slice off above the cut that felled the tree and sticking the tree in a bucket of water in the garage or on the front stoop for a day or two before bringing it indoors. The Forest Service additionally recommends following a recipe created by legendary 'Washington Post' gardening columnist Jack Eden for a special cocktail designed to make Christmas trees less flammable. Mix boiling water with corn syrup, a wetting agent, cider vinegar, borax, and liquid chlorine bleach; this mixture protects against dehydrated wood and brittle needles.
"It's a great tradition for families," says Leche. "Bring a 4x4 if you've got one."
More information: Call the office of your closest National Forest to find out if permits are available in the area. The west is thick with National Forests, but East Coasters, Texans, and folks from the Plains States may have to go to a tree farm.