The Fourth of July is right around the corner, but visions of tinsel, colorful lights and ornaments are dancing in the heads of Colville National Forest staff and Ted Bechtol.
Bechtol, superintendent of grounds at the U.S. Capitol, hiked through the Colville pines this week with a handful of Forest Service volunteers to select a tree to be displayed in Washington, D.C., this Christmas. The Capitol Christmas Tree, annually occupying the West Lawn of the Capitol Building within yards of where presidents take the oath of office, is part of a tradition dating back to the 1960s. Picking, decorating and transporting the perfect candidate more than 2,500 miles is a process that involves months of work and thousands of people.
On Thursday afternoon, though, it was just Bechtol, Forest Service engineer Jen Knutson and technician Cally Davidson in north Ferry County sizing up one of six Englemann spruces in the forest contending for the honor. The location of the trees is a closely guarded secret to prevent vandalism before the winner is harvested in early November, Knutson said.
While rangers and members of the public have been spotting trees for months, whittling down the finalists is a task that ultimately falls to Bechtol. Since 2006, his job has taken him to Arizona, California, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, and along the way he’s developed a discerning eye for the perfect evergreen.
“It’s a good manageable size,” Bechtol said of this 60-foot spruce, which hugs a roadway beset by bright red, pea-size wild strawberries. “It’s not too big and bulky, or too wide where you’ve got to pull all the branches off.”
A tree’s relative location to roads and clearings also plays into the decision. Cranes will support the spruce while it is chopped down, because allowing it to fall might damage branches. The tree will then be loaded onto two donated trailers and wrapped – a process expected to take three days – before touring the state and eventually being hauled across the country.
Davidson, who’s in charge of logistics for the tree’s travel, helped transport a 73-foot spruce from Colorado last year.
Colville received word it would be providing this year’s tree about a year ago, Knutson said.
The Capitol Christmas Tree tradition dates back to 1964, when House Speaker John McCormack, D-Mass., requested a Christmas tree be placed on the Capitol grounds. The first tree, a 24-foot Douglas fir, was bought from a Pennsylvania tree farm for $700. The Forest Service began donating trees to the Capitol in 1970.
The tree isn’t the only thing that’s donated. Thousands of handcrafted ornaments, some of them incredibly ornate, stream into the capitol each year from the tree’s home state.
“You get some things that should be in museums that are out in the weather,” Bechtol said.
Forest Service engineer Knutson said her professional experience has been invaluable in heading up the project. She estimates she’s coordinating a team of about 2,000 people, from elected officials to members of the public donating their time and energy.
“As an engineer, we’re putting together really big projects,” Knutson said. “All that same stuff goes into the Capitol Christmas tree.”
Some trees were ruled out immediately because they housed at-risk species or they lacked the holiday feel. Narrowing the field to a “perfect Christmas tree” was a surprisingly difficult task, said forest spokesman Franklin Pemberton.
“You’d think in a sea of trees, that would be easy to find, and it’s not,” he said.
The last time a Washington tree stood in front of the Capitol was 2006, when Bechtol picked out a 65-foot Pacific silver fir in Olympic National Forest. It was his first solo run at picking a winner, having just inherited the job.
While the identity and location of the winner will be kept secret until just a few weeks before it’s harvested, Bechtol planned to fly back to D.C. today with a selection in mind.
“It’s better to do it sooner than later,” he said.