How to Cut a Natural Christmas Tree from Our National Forests
By Courtney Johnson
From the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Maine, for many, the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree begins in early December. For cheaper than you can buy a tree at the local hardware store, cutting down a tree in a national forest has become tradition for many as well, from Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington to the Ocala National Forest in Florida. In fact, the U.S. Capitol tree this year, a noble fir, was cut down from the Willamette National Forest in Oregon.
Costing anywhere from $5-$25, depending on location, the U.S. Forest Service Christmas Tree permit program serves two purposes—providing families holiday trees while also conserving the forest land—one of their main agency objectives. “We work with the public to provide a service while also managing the forest,” said National Program Manager for the U.S. Forest Service, Sharon Nygaard-Scott who for many years cut down her own tree with her family in the Shoshone National Forest in Cody, Wyoming and the Kaibab National Forest in Arizona.
The National Forest Service uses many tools to manage the forest. Allowing Christmas tree cutting, especially in areas of overgrowth, and the gathering of forest products such as firewood are just two ways they take care of the land for “future generations and sustainability,” said Nygaard-Scott. The money collected from permit sales goes directly back to the Forest Service after taxes are paid to the U.S. Treasury. The money is allocated for continued conservation efforts and safety.
The quantity of permits sold in each location, along with the amount of trees available, varies by location too. While the National Parks Service is focused on preservation, the U.S. Forest is a multi-use agency. Each forest service jurisdiction determines where trees can be cut and cutting dates. Depending on location and popularity, permits may be purchased ahead of time through the mail or at National Forest Service Ranger District offices. Some places even offer onsite permit purchasing. Smokey the Bear and Santa visit many of the tree cutting locations on the weekends.
Some families make it an all day adventure bringing sleds and fire pits and hot cocoa for storytelling. And in terms of the trees, perhaps think more Charlie Brown than tree farm—uneven branches and bare spots are the name of the game. From personal family experience, the hunt is an added bonus. My daughter Emma, who is five, remarked, “I love spending the day outside with my family and decorating with hot cocoa and Charlie Brown on TV.” Emma, a kindergartner, has already been along for the adventure of cutting down four Christmas trees from a national forest.
From Ernest to Penelope, naming the tree and making a wood snowman or reindeer from the access trunk or limbs is all a part of our family tradition of cutting down a tree in a national forest. Other families have other traditions like spending time at their family cabin close by and never forgetting to bring along their furry friend. “Getting a tree from the national forest is a favorite memory of mine,” said Erie, Colorado mother of two Micah Frank. “Some of my favorite memories are my kids laughing at the dog as she sank into the snow with every step.”
With the time and cost of gas, some may question if it is worth the logistics. “It is 100% worth it. Even if you've never done it before, and you feel intimidated the U.S. Forest Service is there to help,” said Frank. “Not only do we get to have fun in the woods, we get a cheaper than any store Christmas tree,” she said about the trees they have cut down in Routt National Forest in Wyoming. “We contribute to the health of the forest while making a fun Christmas memory,” said Frank.
Before you head out the door to find the perfect tree, the U.S. Forest Service recommends visiting the “Know Before You Go,” page for their tips and must bring items to make sure your experience is a positive one. There are 154 National Forest service areas covering more than 193 million acres in the United States. Head to, https://www.fs.fed.us/ select your region on the right and then the forest name below. Once the page specific to the forest loads, look on the left hand side under passes and permits to find Christmas Tree cutting info specific to that area.
Courtney Johnson is a freelance sports and parent writer based in Erie, Colorado. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband AJ and five year old daughter Emma. She has cut down seven of her past Christmas trees in the national forest. Her first book will be be out in spring 2019 called The Best Utah Children's Hikes. Follow her adventures at http://adventureswithmylittleray.com/