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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane-area families create tradition by hunting for their Christmas trees in the forest (and the price is right)

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 10, 2019

Seated comfortably in a hiking backpack on her father’s shoulders, 2 1/2-year-old Eloise Greff had an ideal vantage point to select the perfect Christmas tree.

“She was asking to go check out this tree and go check out that tree,” said A.J. Greff, Eloise’s father. “She was picking them out.”

Also along for the Nov. 30 hike were her mom, Abbie, who was 40 weeks and three days pregnant, and Bianca, a 7-year-old mini schnauzer. This was the seventh Christmas tree A.J. and Abbie found in the forest together, a pre-Eloise tradition started with a growing family in mind.

Their first trees came from Bozeman, but the Greffs have been exploring the woods above Fernan Lake since they moved to Spokane in 2015.

Every year on the weekend after Thanksgiving, they obtain a Christmas tree cutting permit from the Fernan Ranger Station and venture into the woods. A.J. cuts the tree with a small handsaw, hauls it to his white Silverado and puts the cover on the truck bed – occasionally the tree sticks out slightly. The family has the tree up and decorated by the end of day.

“We have our tree so we can be festive,” Greff said. “Christmas has officially begun.”

This Christmas, A.J. said the tree is about 8 feet tall, and selected it because it was less full on one side, allowing him to position it against a window. Trees get smaller as the family grows. Eloise’s brother, Mack, was born on Dec. 4, so next year the truck will need room for a car seat.

The Greffs are not looking for the perfect tree. Somewhere between a pristine tree lot affair and a Charlie Brown underdog is what the family aims for.

“I like real trees and I like trees of character,” Greff said, noting that “Instead of going and buying a nice manicured tree, I like my tree to show a little personality.”

Jennifer Knutson, Colville National Forest public affairs officer, would say the Greffs have a reasonable expectation for their tree.

Knutson and her family get their tree in the forest every year, and she said that a decade ago, she had friends from Tennessee go with them for the first time.

“They were used to grand firs that you get at Home Depot, or wherever you buy your tree every year,” Knutson said. “That’s not the tree we have in Colville National Forest. Usually people get an Engelmann spruce or a subalpine fir, but they are not super thick trees.”

She said the Tennesee kids looked at the trees and said, “This is like a Charlie Brown tree!” and she assured them they would be able to see their ornaments really well that Christmas.

Knutson said the Colville National Forest averaged about 400 Christmas tree permits from 2000 to 2011, and 650 from 2012-2018, with the best year being 2015 with close to 1,000 permits.

The weather and snow cover are the biggest factors, Knutson said.

Shoshanna Cooper, Idaho Panhandle National Forests public information officer, said about 1,800 permits were issued in 2017 and 2018. In 2002, about 1,400 permits were sold and around 1,700 in 2009.

Cooper noted that all fourth-graders, through the Every Kid Outdoors program, can receive a Christmas tree cutting permit for free after completing a short, online program. In 2017 and 2018, 23 children made use of the program.

Permits for Idaho Panhandle National Forests cost $5 and can be purchased in any of the Forest Service offices. Christmas tree permits for the Colville National Forest can be purchased at North 40 outfitters for $5; permits for Inland Empire Paper Co. land access can be purchased at White’s Boots for $15.

The recreational component of Inland Empire Paper Co. land has been managed by Quality Services Inc. for 19 years. The gates are not open to cars, so they will need to be parked at the gate. Trees will need to be hauled out.

Shelley Tschida, Inland Empire Paper Co. CEO, said Christmas tree cutting is still “fairly popular.”

“Maybe not as much as in the early days when families tended to go out more together to the woods to engage in activities like Christmas tree cutting, but it is still a popular remedy for people that need a tree without a great deal of cost,” Tschida said.

Knutson herself has been getting her tree in the Colville National Forest since her eldest was a baby. Now her daughters are 14, 16 and 17. Occasionally the family will build fires in the snow and roast hot dogs. Knutson is not sure that her children fully appreciate the tradition, but assumes one day they will.

“I think that when they have the experience of not doing it, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that was kind of a boring way to get a tree,’ ” Knutson said, noting their father works with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. ‘We just went down to the store and bought one for 90 bucks, and brought it inside the house.’ And you know, I think they’ll have to miss that experience to appreciate just how much fun it is.”

Jim Kershner is a seasoned pro. He cut his Christmas tree with his family for 20 years, beginning the trek with a big breakfast before heading into the forest.

“Often you’re up in areas where there’s a lot of snow, and sometimes it’s pretty hard to get around,” said Kershner, a Spokane Public Library trustee and a longtime writer for The Spokesman-Review. “You have to be prepared for that. Sometimes you have to snowshoe in, depending on the year and the weather, but it makes it easier to pull the tree out, you just tie a rope to it and drag it out on the snow.”

One year, the family skied in and pulled the tree back on skis. Kershner won’t be getting his own tree this year. He is visiting his grown children – and his four grandchildren – in Bellingham this Christmas.

He said he hopes one day to carry on the tradition with them.

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