The day after Thanksgiving means the beginning of the Christmas season. The radios begin playing Christmas carols as people put up their lights and decorations. Bits of wrapping paper deck the floors as people hurry to hide their presents. Kids wonder what they'll get as they try to surprise their family with some useless -- but essential -- item. Nativity plays are written and then rehearsed at the top of the actors' lungs.
But the Christmas tree plays just as big a part of the festivities as any of those things. Traditionally, Dad carries it in, Mom puts the lights on it, and finally the kids get to help decorate it. But as we've learned, getting your tree from the wild adds much more to the whole tradition.
Many national forests across the country allow you to cut your own Christmas tree. When we heard about it for the first time, we thought it sounded suspiciously like logging. However, there are many reasons why it is better than getting one commercially.
By doing this, you are helping with the maintenance of forests. It may be viewed as a better alternative to prescribed burns or selective logging. When clumps of trees are too close to each other, they don't get enough light to grow properly. So, if you choose a tree that's standing next to at least one more, it will make the other trees in the stand healthier. Usually, forests not offering this program have to either use prescribed burns to remove stands of trees and dry wood that is a potential fire hazard or hire people to cut down some of the trees. They have to do something, or wildfires will start easily and quickly get out of control. So you're also helping to make forests safer.
Additionally, places with a large demand for trees set a limit on obtainable permits. In the desert states, where trees are not as common as in other places, available permits may total just above 6,000. However, where self-serve Christmas trees are not as popular, there may not be any limit at all. Besides this rule, there may also be restrictions regarding how many trees one family may take. The numbers can vary from one per family to five per person, so it's a good idea to clarify this if you plan to get more than one Christmas tree.
It is illegal to cut the top part off a tree. Accordingly, the highest you can cut is six inches off the ground. In some places, the circumference of the trunk also has to be six inches or less. Still, I would recommend following this rule whether it is enforced or not, because the trees with thicker trunks are older and will take longer to grow back. Chainsaws are also prohibited. Another general rule is that you're supposed to cut at least fifty feet from the road. In most places, however, there are specific plots indicated with ropes or ribbons for cutting trees and you don't have to worry about that.
Getting a Christmas tree that has already been cut can have its own problems. In 2009, Washington sent shipments of Christmas trees to Alaska. Unfortunately, live Pacific Chorus frogs had made their homes in the trees
. This species of frog can carry fungi or viruses, including the chytrid fungus that has killed amphibians on many continents. The frogs were not native to Alaska, and residents were told to kill the frogs if they found them in their tree. In 2007, a load of Washington trees headed for Hawaii was redirected to Alaska when they found two yellow jacket queens and a kind of hornet riding on them. Hawaii is much stricter than Alaska about what it lets in (they probably learned from the mice, mongooses and mosquitoes introduced by early settlers), and requires trees to be shaken by a machine before entering the islands. No matter where you live, introducing non-native species is a problem.
If there is a national forest near where you live, you can find out if they allow Christmas tree harvesting. (Do not rule yourself out because you live in the Great Plains. Both Nebraska and South Dakota actually allow cutting Christmas trees in their national forests.) For most national forests, their websites list details under the "Passes and Permits" section.
It's a good idea to know what species of tree you're allowed to cut. In Florida, bushy sand pines are available. In one New Mexico forest, any species of conifer is available. In Arizona, it varies by forest. In two of them, you can take any species of tree; one is exclusively firs; another only pinon or juniper trees. In some Colorado forests, you are obliged to take the yellow-green lodgepole pine.
Directions are also important so that you make sure you end up going to the right forest. In California, both the Mendocino National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin do allow people to take trees, but the nearby (and easily confused) El Dorado National Forest penalizes those who do.
Finally, cutting your own Christmas tree in the forest is an experience that is entirely unmatched by going to most tree lots. Finding a tree yourself is unforgettable -- although it does help if you remember to bring a camera!