Perched atop a snow-laced ridge in the Mendocino national forest of northern California, the perfect Christmas tree seemed to glow in the speckled light. With delicate needles and a small stature, the 6ft evergreen was one of a few thousand available to be taken home by families participating in a government program encouraging people to harvest their own tree.
The decades-old initiative, run by the US Forest Service, has become a beloved tradition for those seeking a side of adventure along with a cherished tree. Each year, 200,000 to 300,000 trees are taken home from forests across the country. It’s part of a seasonal cull that forest managers say improves a forest’s health and helps weed out potential fire hazards.
But compared with commercial tree farm sales, self-harvesting is a vastly underutilized option. Roughly 21m Christmas trees were bought last year according to the National Christmas Tree Association, a grower’s trade group, with consumers forking over more than $70 on average a pop. Inflation and low supply are pushing prices even higher, with an expected 10% bump this holiday season. Obtaining a permit to cut your own tree, by contrast, costs between $5 and $25, and some are even free.
In recent years, the forest service has stepped up efforts to raise awareness of Christmas tree cutting and brought the permitting process online. It is also offering new digital tools, including detailed maps, to ensure tree-seekers can get all the information they need right from their phone or home.
The program serves a dual purpose. It’s part of a broader land-management plan aimed at culling overcrowding, and – perhaps more importantly – a strategy to cement positive connections with the forests that can be passed down to future generations and motivate conservation efforts.
“You go out there and have this amazing experience and fall in love with those areas,” said Janelle Smith, a USFS official who worked with Recreation.gov, a federal website where users can book campgrounds and other recreation activities, to bring the permitting system online. “Hopefully then, you want to take care of them and pass that along to your kids and their kids.”
She knows from experience. After moving to Idaho when her son was four, her family started their own Christmas tree cutting tradition, venturing into the forest to find the perfect tree and topping the day off with a trip to a nearby hot spring.
Back in the Mendocino forest, that special tree sat amid a thicket of conifers stretching toward the sun on a crisp November morning. My partner and I had set out into the woods early in the season in search of the perfect specimen.
After spending a night under the stars and amid the trees, we took our time traversing through mountain roads embanked by pockets of freshly-fallen snow, armed with a handsaw and plenty of excitement.
Here there are still scores of blackened trees gripping their silvery needles as if frozen in time, a remnant of the charred hillside where catastrophic fires have torn through in recent years. But there are still several verdant splashes among them, showcasing the signs of recovery, and that’s where our tree stood.
Taking the smaller trees from dense areas helps preserve forest health, according to officials, by decreasing the dangers and ensuring better distribution of scarce resources.
The way in which each forest manages the culling of Christmas trees is specific to that environment, according to USFS National Press Officer, Wade Muehlhof.
“Just like any project work we do on national forest system lands, all of these are planned,” he said. “Someone is looking at what the stability of the ground looks like, what has regenerated, the height of trees available – these programs are well planned out,” he said.
In Mendocino, which sprawls across more than 913,000 acres through the Coastal Mountain Range in northern California, a few thousand naturally growing ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and incense cedars were among the trees made available to take home this year. The amount of permits issued ebbs and flows based on forest management priorities.
Forest officials say smaller trees can pose risks for larger, more established trees by enabling flames to climb into the canopies.
“It is good to have people come through and take some of the smaller trees that are packed in, really dense and overcrowded,” said Laura Leidner, spokesperson for the Mendocino national forest. “It leaves more space and nutrients and water for the larger trees to continue to grow.”
The program and permitting boundaries are evaluated every year, ensuring Christmas tree harvesting doesn’t do more harm than good. For instance, where fires burned away large amounts of vegetation, “removing smaller trees is removing future forests”, Leidner said.
That’s why there are specific restrictions on where people can cut and which trees can be taken. Most have to have trunks smaller than 6 inches in diameter, be growing at least 200 feet from a main road or recreation site and they must be cut from the bottom, leaving less than six inches of stump.
Like any outdoor adventure, finding a Christmas tree in the forest comes with challenges. Winding mountain roads can be perilous, especially without the right vehicle or gear. Tools are required for chopping, carrying and conveying. Winter weather can turn nasty quickly, and in remote areas cellphone reception is never a guarantee. Leidner recommends that anyone venturing into the woods bring along a chainsaw and perhaps a backup way of communication.
But the challenge makes for some of the best celebrations. That’s what the forest service hopes will stick.
“Many families are discovering their local forest for the first time to bring home their special holiday tree,” said the US Forest Service chief, Randy Moore, in a written statement. “These experiences help connect people to their local national forest and become treasured family memories.”