Bough hunters

Mark Grant, left, and Jason Kirchner carry a Christmas tree from the Idaho Panhandle National Forests near Coeur d’Alene on Friday. Grant, who is just weeks from retirement as a fire management officer, has been cutting the office tree for many years.  (Jesse Tinsley)
Mark Grant, left, and Jason Kirchner carry a Christmas tree from the Idaho Panhandle National Forests near Coeur d’Alene on Friday. Grant, who is just weeks from retirement as a fire management officer, has been cutting the office tree for many years. (Jesse Tinsley)

A $5 permit lets you pick your own Christmas tree

The winning candidate was a shapely 19-year-old, with vivid coloring and a natural beauty.

Mark Grant, who picked the winner, praised the near perfection of form. Jason Kirchner, also involved in the selection process, mentioned the crisp evergreen scent, redolent of pitch, snow and pine cones.

We’re talking, of course, about the annual employee Christmas tree for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

Each year, workers buy a $5 Forest Service permit to cut a tree that’s decorated and displayed at the forest supervisor’s office in Coeur d’Alene. Grant is the ex-officio tree-cutter. This year, he picked out a grand fir, about 8 feet tall, with glossy, emerald needles.

“They smell really good and they stay green,” said Grant, explaining his preference for grand firs as he navigated a slushy layer of snow on Fernan Lake Road, assessing the trees on nearby hillsides as he drove.

Tall and lanky was out. Short and bushy was in.

Grant’s favorite Christmas tree species is actually alpine fir, which he prizes for its tapered, isosceles-triangle shape. But most alpine firs grow at elevations of 5,000 feet or greater. Early snowfall this year made Grant’s favorite cutting spot near Prichard, Idaho, inaccessible.

So, he was hunting his second choice – grand fir – on the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District. Kirchner, a public information officer, was along for the ride.

Natural-grown trees don’t achieve the sheared symmetry of tree-lot specimens, but with a little bit of effort, it’s possible to find a nicely shaped tree, Kirchner said. Among Forest Service employees, expectations tend to run high.

“If you don’t come back to the office with a good tree, people complain,” he said.

Grant has something of a reputation for picking out good Christmas trees. He does his tree-hunting on sites with poor growing conditions. Conifers that grow slowly have closer-spaced branches, producing a fuller tree.

Grant stopped the Forest Service truck near a hillside covered with ponderosa pines – a drier site where moisture-loving firs don’t thrive. He and Kirchner hiked a quarter-mile up the trail, shaking snow off the smaller firs to assess their shape.

Some were too tall; others too thin. The two men paused by one grand fir, admiring its closely layered branches. Grant hesitated, but didn’t pull out his handsaw.

“We might find something better,” he said.

A little farther down the trail, another tree caught his eye. This grand fir was an ideal height – about 10 feet – but missing branches gave it a lopsided appearance. The two men headed back to the earlier tree.

“It’s full, it’s round and it has a good shape,” said Grant, who made quick work of felling the 8-foot tree.

He counted the tree rings in the stump to estimate its age. The stunted tree was 19 years old.

Grant said the Christmas tree cutting program actually helps improve the health of the forest. Removing the smaller trees reduces competition for water and nutrients.

Last year, the Idaho Panhandle National Forests sold 1,400 Christmas tree permits. The popularity of cutting trees is probably influenced by local culture, Kirchner said.

“North Idaho is an independent part of the country,” he said. “People hunt and fish and they take pride in getting their own tree.”

But “you don’t have to be a mountain man. Anyone can do this,” he added. Each $5 permit comes with instructions for cutting a Christmas tree on federal lands.

Back at the forest supervisor’s office, the grand fir was whisked through the back door. Forest Service employees take pride in the decorated tree, but they no longer display it in the front lobby. That practice stopped several years ago.

“One of our receptionists is allergic to conifers,” Kirchner said. “She ended up in the hospital two years in a row with pneumonia from the reaction.”

The tree was relegated to the conference room.

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