Bringing home the Tannenbaum

Cut your own tree for a lasting holiday memory

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Rich family traditions, passed from parents to children, are the tangible stuff of holidays. Without them, we are left to chase material dreams and the latest circuit-board gadget.

Electronic games can be a source of momentary joy but won't preserve cherished memories the way an outing into the forest and harvesting your own Christmas tree can.

Fortunately, the price of a cherished memory while spending the holidays in Northwest Colorado is negligible. A $10 permit - available at the Routt National Forest office on U.S. Highway 40, or at the BLM office in Craig - is all you'll need. OK, a saw and snowshoes will come in handy, too.

Close friends and I have faithfully met early each December to go into the forest and claim a tree. We began before our sons were born. Those sons have grown up and gone off to college, but in more than 22 years, we've never missed an annual outing.

Wait a moment. Have we been harming the environment by cutting down those 44 evergreen trees?

Wendy Holden of the Hahn's Peak Ranger District says that when practiced judiciously, the tradition of cutting a tree from public lands can help the forest.

"It actually is beneficial to the forest in many regards," Holden said. "When you cut a young tree, there's less competition for the trees left behind."

In particular, the subalpine fir trees that are common in the mountains surrounding Steamboat tend to grow in clumps when immature. Thinning the trees increases the odds that one or two will grow to full height and be healthy.

You can distinguish between the subalpines and the native spruce tress (it's fine to harvest the latter, as well) by remembering the phrase "friendly fir."

If you grasp a twig of spruce needles with your bare hand, you can't help but notice that your skin is being pricked. Fir needles, in contrast, are soft and friendly.

Also, a majority of your $10 permit fee stays in this forest, where it offsets the cost of managing the program with a little left over to support rangers in the field. Every year, the Hahn's Peak Ranger District issues between 1,300 and 1,500 Christmas tree permits, Holden said. The number has strayed beyond those limits for many years.

When people pick up the bright orange sticker that serves as their permit, they also get a handout about harvesting rules. The sticker gets wrapped around the trunk of the fallen tree. Holden points out that only trees shorter than 20 feet may be harvested. Bring along a portable shovel so you can dig down through the snow and leave a stump that is no higher than 6 inches.

Consult a map before you leave home to ensure you will be hunting trees on public lands. And stay well away from developed recreation areas, roads, trails, lakes and streams. Don't expect to pick up a permit on Saturday morning before heading into the field. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

Of course, you can pull that perfectly symmetrical artificial Christmas tree out of the closet again this year. It's a lot less hassle. But if it's a tradition you seek, go to the hardware store for a folding saw, gather friends and snowshoes and introduce the young people in your life to a holiday memory that will follow wherever life leads them.

"It really is a Charlie Brown experience," Holden said.

Speaking of traditions:

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