Cut your own Christmas tree in a national forest (and relish the adventure)
You might not cut a perfect tree in the wild, but you’ll get a woodsy, snowy adventure you won’t soon forget.
Special to The Seattle Times
If you go
Cutting a National Forest tree
Where to get a permit
For Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, cutting permits can be obtained at Verlot Public Service Center, on the Mountain Loop Highway; Glacier Public Service Center, on the Mount Baker Highway; the National Forest's Enumclaw office, and ranger stations in North Bend (Snoqualmie Ranger District), Darrington and Skykomish. As of Dec. 9, permits for 2013 are sold out at REI stores in Seattle and Alderwood. Permits are good through Dec. 24.
Where to cut
Cutting areas are located within national forest lands in the eastern portions of Pierce, King, Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties. When you get your permit, tell a ranger where you plan to go, or ask for suggestions. They can show you the areas open to harvest and give you important information about road closures due to snow.
Under 12 feet, $10. Over 12 feet, $20.
Note: A valid Washington State Sno-Park permit must be displayed when parking at any state Sno-Park.
• Cut the entire tree, not just the top. Leave no more than 12 inches of stump.
• Select a tree in a crowded area; don’t take stand-alone trees in an open area.
• Don’t cut in campgrounds, on private property, in wilderness areas, administrative areas or within 150 feet of a stream, lake, pond or wetland.
• Measure your ceiling height before you go, because once you’re in the woods it’s easy to misjudge how much tree you can accommodate.
Another cut-your-own option
Cut your tree at a Christmas-tree farm. See the Puget Sound Christmas Tree Association website: pscta.org.
I’ve lived in Washington state my entire life, yet until recently I’ve always purchased my Christmas tree from a parking lot.
I live in the place where Christmas trees come from, so when I fork over $50 for the convenience of a cut tree, I feel like I’m cheating — kind of like fishing from the trout-stocked pond at summer camp.
When you buy your tree from a lot, you’re guaranteed to find one. And you’re almost guaranteed to find the perfectly manicured variety. But where’s the sport in that?
It strikes me that our search for the perfect Christmas tree is a lot like how we try to force Christmas into being the perfect occasion. Trees in the wild are hardly ever perfect. They can be scraggly, crooked, odd and rarely symmetrical. Kind of like the people in our families.
Nobody’s perfect, and your tree won’t be either. But I guarantee it will feel more genuine, and the memory of hiking through the snow to find your imperfect tree will probably mean a lot more than simply picking one up at the supermarket.
Here’s how you can harvest your tree in Washington, plus a few lessons my wife and I learned when we found our first tree.
Lesson 1Ask a forest ranger about conditions before you set out, or you could get stuck.
We started our tree safari at the downtown Seattle REI, where we picked up a $10 permit from the Outdoor Recreation Information Center. The permit was good for cutting a tree in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the closest national forest to Seattle. We have a small house, so the 12-foot height limit was more than enough (although we could have gone for a larger tree for only $10 more).
The ranger gave us a National Forest map and outlined what areas were open to harvest and those that were off-limits for cutting (campgrounds, watersheds and private property). He also detailed what roads were snowbound and likely to require high clearance or four-wheel drive.
This turned out to be valuable information, as we later saw several people stuck in the snow.
Scout the edges of clearings, roads and around power lines for small trees.
Step 2 was to find the right area for the right size of tree. This was the hardest part. We thought we would just walk through the woods until we found the perfect 6 footer. But it wasn’t that simple.
Have you ever noticed how small trees don’t really grow in a mature forest? There’s typically not enough light, so the seedlings get choked out. The baby trees that thrive are usually scrawny and sad.
We would take a Charlie Brown tree if we had to, but were hoping we could do better.
The cone doesn’t fall far from the tree: Small trees are found under big trees.
Once we figured out that we needed to stick to more open areas, we trudged through 3 inches of new snow along a Forest Service road near Snoqualmie Pass, finding mostly common Douglas fir evergreens (same as the cheap trees at the lots). Then my wife spotted a huge noble fir (the expensive trees) in the distance. Sure enough, below it was a nice 8-foot tree.
Finding the right tree became a lot easier once we learned to scan the tops of the big trees until we found the right shape, then we searched below for a tree that would fit in our house.
Cut the tree low.
OK, I have to admit I felt a little guilty when it came time to cutting our tree.
We selected one that was growing alongside a second small tree. Our logic went like this: Two trees growing near one another will compete until one of them eventually wins. By thinning one of them, we were only making it easier for the second to thrive.
We used a bow saw and cut the tree as low as possible, knowing we could trim it to the right size once we got it home. After all, it’s easier to make a tree shorter than it is to add length back.
And finally, we vowed to do the following:
For every year that we cut our Christmas tree, we would return to plant a sapling. That way, we would start a new tradition, and give back what we had taken.
Jeff Layton is a Seattle-based freelance writer.