Yesterday I shared a few peeks at my ski tour Christmas tree hunt with Brendan and Kona. It might sound a little sappy, but I’m so glad we spent some quality holiday time together and branched out from our usual traditions. Fir sure, there was a little work involved to get a tree from the forest, but it was totally worth it now that our living room is all spruced up. Needle-less to say, you should go harvest your own – here’s how:
- Get a permit. Across the country, each forest determines a set number of permits and makes them available in mid-November. If you’re in western Washington, I know what you’re thinking – “not another permit scramble. The Enchantments and St. Helens leave me cynical enough.” But the nice thing about Christmas tree permits is that they reward a little extra effort. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest spreads their permits across their ranger stations and a handful of retail outlets, and they don’t reallocate at all through the season. Downtown Seattle’s REI may have sold out super quickly, but their staff was able to direct me to the Verlot ranger station, which still had a few dozen on hand. It was more of a detour than we were hoping for, but fortune favors those that are willing to be a little inconvenienced. If you’ve got the flexibility to hit the ranger stations with limited weekend hours, you should have no issue scoring a permit, even this late in the season. Likewise, there are 5 different National Forests in Washington, each with their own permit quotas, so even if you strike out in the Puget Sound area, being willing to hop over the water to the Olympic National Forest or cross one of the passes to get to the Okanogan-Wenatchee should make you a winner. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie permit locations are available here, and note that some ranger stations only accept cash or check.
- Grab a map and find a spot. There are lots of spots where you can’t harvest trees, like campgrounds, parking lots, or designated wilderness areas. Confused by that last one? What’s the difference between National Forest land and a wilderness area? Wilderness areas are the sections of the National Forest that are limited to non-motorized recreation and are completely undeveloped. The areas outside of the recreation area are less stringently protected, where land management permits timber harvesting or a ski resort. During your permit purchase, rangers will generally share a map and point you towards a few choice roads. If you’re adventuring beyond that, you’ll need to get well acquainted with a map of the wilderness area borders. Wilderness areas are mapped here, but note that this version doesn’t include the borders for the National Forest. For example, the Glacier Peak Wilderness is split between the Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests, so you’ll need to cross reference with those borders as well. We started with the National Forest land along Highway 2 and then used Caltopo to find the roads and trails that would get us into the woods. If you’re stumped on where to go, you can always get some tips or run through your options at the ranger station.
- Lower your expectations. Naturally grown trees are different than the full and bushy conifers you’ll find at a tree farm or the plastic replicas that come in a box. Farmed trees are well spaced on flat, even ground so they have plenty of room to grow and access to sunlight. They get regularly pruned over 7 to 8 years and farms either regularly weed the area or reach for pesticides to make their trees picture perfect. USFS trees are a lot less manicured, and wind, steep slopes, and competing trees leave them looking a little more Charlie Brown-esque. Further, the Forest Service would really rather you cleared out the sadder, sicker trees of the bunch and leave the stronger ones behind for a healthier forest.
- Get the right tools. Ten bucks for a tree sounds like a steal (half the cost of a farmed tree) until you factor in the other items you’ll need to have in tow. Trees need to be cut down to their bases – you’re not permitted to just take the top off of and leave the rest there decapitated. At this point in the season, that means carrying a shovel along with our saw so that we were able to dig down to the base of the tree. Once it’s cut, you’re also on your own for ropes, netting, or tarps for loading the tree onto your vehicle.
One question I’ve also been asked is whether it’s really sustainable. For the most part, yes. While plastic trees are reusable for multiple years, they’re made from energy-intensive, non-renewable materials and can’t be recycled or composted once they’re put out to pasture. Organic tree farms are also a great resource for a sustainable tree, but most conventional farms are heavy users of pesticides and chemicals. That being said, there are even greener ways to celebrate, like stringing lights around a backyard tree or an indoor plant to get into the spirit.