November 27, 2008 in Idaho

Cut your own tree for $5

Forest Service offers permits
By The Spokesman-Review

If you go

Christmas tree permits are available at U.S. Forest Service offices. They are $5, good for one tree.

A permit from the Idaho Panhandle National Forests allows harvest of a tree from Forest Service lands in North Idaho or Montana, or Bureau of Land Management lands. Trees must be cut at least 200 feet from main roads, campgrounds and recreation sites, and at least 100 yards from streams.

Both the Idaho Panhandle and Colville national forests encourage cutting trees from overstocked stands. Cutting large trees for their tops is prohibited.

For a bargain Christmas tree, try the federal government.

With a $5 permit, millions of evergreens are available for the choosing from the Inland Northwest’s national forests.

Sure, they’re lanky versions of commercially grown trees, which years of pruning and shearing sculpt into the bushy conifers idealized on Christmas cards. But if you want a holiday tradition – something homespun that will provide fodder for family stories for years to come – you can’t beat a trip to the woods to cut your own tree, Forest Service officials said.

Even if you return with a scrawny specimen, “it’s an adventure for the family,” said Rhinda Wolfe, an information receptionist at the Colville National Forest supervisor’s office.

Last year, the forest sold 425 permits – less than a quarter of the Christmas tree take five years ago.

“I think the price of gas had a lot to do with it,” Wolfe said. “Hopefully, we’ll pick up again this year.”

To encourage families to select wild trees, the Colville forest is hosting a tree-cutting field trip Dec. 6. To register, call (509) 684-7000.

At offices of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, Christmas tree permits are selling briskly.

“Because times are economically challenging for more folks, they may be refocusing on what the season is about, and that includes spending time with your family and your children,” said Gail Aschenbrenner West, the forests’ public affairs officer. “I think the (wild-cut) tree is a symbol of that.”

National forests also offer conifer species rarely for sale in commercial tree lots.

When West was growing up in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, Englemann spruce was the quintessential Christmas tree in her family’s eyes. Statuesque and fragrant, the spruces’ needles are sharp and barb-like. “We almost had to wear gloves to decorate them,” West said.

Englemann spruce grow at high elevations in Inland Northwest forests. West recommends spruce for people who want to keep pets away from their decorated trees, although “a fir is a little more humane.”

Grand fir works well for households with kids, West said. Soft needles makes grand firs easy to decorate.

For families willing to wander farther afield, West suggests the subalpine fir. Like Englemann spruce, subalpine fir grows at elevations near 5,000 feet.

The tree’s inverted-V shape makes it “the iconic Christmas tree,” West said. The graceful form is an adaptation for shedding snow.

Even a few Ponderosa pines make it out of the woods each year as Christmas trees. The long needles and widely spaced branches are a challenge for stringing lights, West acknowledged, but the pines “have such a Western look to them.”

People who want symmetrical, bushier trees should scout out previously logged areas, including the openings under power line rights of way. Where the canopy is open, additional light helps young trees grow.

Harvesting wild trees helps the forest, West said. Judicious thinning strengthens stands.

“You’re taking a tree from the forest,” she said, “but you’re giving that tree’s neighbor a better chance of survival.”

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122 or by e-mail at

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