Your Christmas tree is out there – waiting for you in the forest.
A journey on a cold afternoon to find that prize is an annual ritual for many people in Southwest Colorado.
The San Juan National Forest sells Christmas tree permits for $8. A permit, available at agency offices and selected retailers, allows you to cut a tree up to 20-feet tall. Ambitious evergreen hunters can buy up to five permits to cut trees for personal use. The national forest sells about 3,000 permits a year.
The size and shape of the ideal tree may be a matter of personal preference or the height of your living room ceiling, but the white fir stands out as a popular choice.
The white fir is a fragrant tree with soft needles. You’ll know you’ve found a white fir when you grab the needles and they are friendly to the touch. They grow at mid-elevations and have a full crown. Their flat, flexible blue-green needles attach separately to branches. Branch tips are gray and branches flat.
Where can you find a white fir? They like shade and grow up underneath larger trees. Cutting them can improve forest health because you are removing ladder fuels that can carry fire from the ground into the forest canopy.
The subalpine fir and the spruce can also make fine Christmas trees. Like the white fir, the subalpine fir is friendly to the touch, but it is found at higher elevations. The spruce is also found at higher elevations, but its needles are stiff, square and sharp, and they attach separately to branches.
Piñon and juniper trees are two other options for tree hunters.
The Forest Service prohibits the cutting of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine because of inadequate numbers of young trees in these species. Douglas fir are found at all elevations on moist, north-facing slopes. They are abundant in canyons. Their short (half-inch), flat, green needles attach separately to branches with red-pointed tips. Cones hang down with little “tails” sticking out between scales. Ponderosa grow at low to mid-elevations and have long, round needles in clusters. Their classic woody cones have thick scales.
In addition to a saw, take a shovel with you. Once you’ve selected your tree, dig down through the snow to ground level. Cut the trunk off as close to the ground as possible. Leave no more than a 6-inch stump and do not leave live branches on the stump.
Before hauling your prize out of the forest, attach your permit and make sure the permit is visible when you load the tree on your vehicle. People who take untagged trees from federal lands can be fined. Trees cannot be cut within 100 feet of county roads or state and federal highways.
Popular forest access sites for tree hunters are along Beaver Meadows Road, the national forest surrounding Vallecito Reservoir and Junction Creek Road. Permits cannot be used to cut trees on state, tribal, Bureau of Land Management or private land.
Fourth-grade students can receive a free permit if they hold a valid Every Kid in a Park Pass or download a paper voucher from www.EveryKidinaPark.gov.
Permits are on sale at:
BayfieldColumbine Ranger District, 367 Pearl St., 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. DoloresDolores Ranger District, 29211 Colorado Highway 184, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday.Dolores Food Market, 400 Railroad Ave. DurangoSan Juan Public Lands Center, 15 Burnett Court, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Kroegers Ace Hardware, 8 Town Plaza.LewisCox Corner Store, 18794 Highway 491. MancosCox Conoco, 201 E. Railroad Ave.
For more information, visit http://www.durangotrain.com/events/christmas-tree-train.
Sources: San Juan National Forest and Christy Garrou.