Deep into the woods: White River National Forest members give some hands-on tips to Christmas Tree cutting
To no surprise this journey begins in a frigid pickup truck cab. A respectable snowstorm just enveloped the Roaring Fork Valley earlier this week. There’s snow everywhere.
Sipping warm coffee tumblers near 8 a.m. Thursday morning, U.S. Forest Service members Doug Leyva and David Boyd clunked up Four Mile Road past Sunlight Mountain Resort.
The White River National Forest Supervisors’ Office in Glenwood each year displays a freshly-cut fir in its reception area. Leyva and Boyd were fulfilling this tradition.
“It makes the office festive,” said Leyva, a Forest Service timber and fuels program manager, his hands gripping the steering wheel. “But it also kind of gives folks an example of what they expect to find when they go into the forest.
“We try to give a good example of what kind of trees are out there.”
Leyva said thousands of people this time of year buy permits to cut down Christmas Trees in White River National Forest. In 2021, this patch of forestland collected $78,705 in revenue after selling 8,175 permits. Purchases come from local residents, nearby hotels, even international inquiries are made.
“I had a person contact me from Australia, asking if non-citizens could get a permit,” Boyd said. “They were doing a month-long (stay) in Aspen and wanted to know how to get it.”
Traversing acreages designated throughout Garfield County for tree hunting, families and friends also trudge through thick snow, armed with Fiskars, determined to find the perfect fir to fit their living rooms.
Leyva’s middle daughter stands on his shoulders. A treetop measuring close to her head is about right for their living room of high ceilings.
“You always have to measure your space before you go out,” Leyva said. “It doesn’t have to be an exact measurement.”
There are of course limits on the size of a tree one can cut. It’s illegal to cut down anything over 15 feet tall. It’s also encouraged to select a fir that’s not standing on its own.
“If you’re gonna go out and cut a tree, look for a group of trees and cut from there,” Leyva said. “If you cut one out of the middle of a group of say, five, then when springtime rolls around, the remaining four will have more resources.
“There’s one less tree to take water and nutrients.”
Getting there? Half the fun
Wind drifts at an elevation of 9,000 feet smacked Boyd and Leyva in their faces as they lifted one leg over the other in otherwise untouched, knee-deep snow.
At a near distance as they slowly made their ascension were groves and groves of trees. Their canopies were silhouetted by the morning’s sun bursting through a bluebird sky.
Once Boyd and Leyva reached the trees, the wind broke and everything grew dead still. Ten minutes passed, nothing. Fifteen minutes passed, Levya still couldn’t decide if he had a keeper.
“What about this, Dave?” Leyva asked Boyd.
Boyd was catching his breath after stepping over a fallen tree trunk.
“Yeah,” he responded, nodding his head.
This didn’t dissuade Leyva from exploring and eyeing other trees. But another five minutes passed and he decided to go back to the tree he originally asked Boyd about.
Leyva said it’s best to cut a desired tree toward the bottom — and bring a saw, not an ax.
“After you take it off the stump, you want to make sure to cut any remaining branches that are on there that you may have missed,” he said. “Cut those off or even just stomp it all the way down to the ground if you can. It’s amazing how long a root system will stay alive with one little branch of green needles sticking out the side.”
It’s not unheard of to have 3,000-5,000 seedlings per acre that regenerate, Leyva said. A healthy growing tree stand is going to have about 1,000-1,500 trees per acre. The White River National Forest comprises 2.3 million acres.
Leyva, however, just needs one. He unfolded a pruning saw as he stood in some thick brush. Within seconds, after a few back and forths with the saw, his Christmas Tree fell over.
There was still quite a long way back to the truck, most of which through more thick snow and racing winds. Leyva said people can sometimes see weasels, lynx and mountain lions while on these tree hunts.
But that didn’t phase him. He slung the tree over his shoulder with a smile on his face.
“It’s all downhill now,” he joked.
Anyone interested in purchasing a permit to cut down a Christmas Tree in the White River National Forest can do so online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/whiteriver/passes-permits/forestproducts/?cid=fseprd602158. Or, purchase one at any U.S. Forest Service office. Permits cost $10.
Note: Information taken from White River National Forest permit pamphlet.
Places to avoid tree hunting:
- Wilderness areas and proposed wilderness areas
- Developed recreation areas
- Ski areas
- Glenwood Canyon
- Commercial timber sales
- Within 100 feet of Main Roads
- Camp Hale (Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District)
- Forest lands within Gunnison County
- Meadow Mountain (lower slopes) directly behind the Holy Cross Ranger Station
- Other Forest Order Closure Areas as shown the map
Observe these rules:
- Any conifer tree may be harvested but avoid cutting Colorado Blue Spruce
- Trees need to be less than 15 feet and 6 inches or less in stump diameter (at the base)
- Trees must be used for personal use and cannot be resold
- Cut your tree as close to the grand as possible (stump height of 6 inches or less)
- Attach your Christmas Tree Permit to the base of the tree before transporting
Caring for your tree:
- At home, cut one inch off the base of the trunk and immediately place in water. Do not allow the tree to die out.
- Regular tap water works great, check water levels at least once a day (more often is better) for the first week
- Increase the humidity around the tree by misting the needles with water.
- Again, don’t let your tree dry out — they’re fire hazards
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