A gift to the nation

by Chris Council, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

On a recent morning amidst a festive atmosphere, several hundred people gathered to watch the cutting of this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas tree outside of Meeker and witness a tradition dating back to 1970.
 
For the past 42 years the tree, which adorns the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol and also is known as the “People’s Tree,” has come from one of the country’s national forests. This year marks the third time that Colorado has contributed to the effort, and the first time the national symbol has come from the White River National Forest.
 
There are nine regions within the U.S. Forest Service that supply the tree on a rotating basis, and this year the honor fell to the Rocky Mountain region. When the call went out for volunteers, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams stepped up to the plate and said “we couldn’t be happier” to be involved. Typically, all the districts within a given forest will participate in the process, but this year the responsibility fell to Blanco District Ranger Ken Coffin, although when he agreed to take part he didn’t quite realize the enormity of the project.

Finding the perfect tree

 
As part of the initial selection process, Coffin identified 12 candidate trees throughout his district. The final selection was made over a two-day period in August by the superintendent of the U.S. Capitol grounds, Ted Bechtol. The list of criteria included a height range, the size of the crown, density, balance and general aesthetics. Bechtol explained that because the tree is viewed from 360 degrees, it needs to look good from every angle.
 
“It’s not like you can shove it back in the corner between the sofa and grandma’s rocking chair,” he said. Bechtol described the process of looking for the perfect tree akin to a beauty contest. As it turned out, this year’s tree is a 73-foot-tall Englemann Spruce weighing nearly 9,000 pounds, and estimated by the rings in the trunk to be 74 years old.

Timber

 
The day of the tree cutting started with a private blessing by members of the Northern Ute Indian tribe from Fort Duchesne, Utah, as well as from the Four Corners region of Colorado. While members of the media swarmed the site, spectators took a close-up look at the tree, intermittently taking turns to warm themselves at a nearby fire and eat breakfast treats on the chilly morning. Meanwhile, two massive cranes moved into position and the crew from Denver-based Tree Medicine created a smooth section near the base of the trunk where the cut would take place.
 
One of the more messy tasks fell to U.S. Forest Service employee Troy Osborn, who smeared gobs of Vaseline just above the point where the tree would be cut. The petroleum jelly helped to create a seal for the massive bulbous water tank that would be attached to the tree to keep it hydrated during its travel across the country.
 
Following speeches by various dignitaries including Congressman Scott Tipton, the big moment finally arrived. Owner of Tree Medicine, Joe Ostrowski, fired up a chainsaw and made a clean horizontal cut through the base of the tree. But the tree didn’t fall over because it had been secured via ropes to a giant crane stretched out overhead. This method prevented the tree from toppling and damaging its branches. The crane proceeded to lift the tree high in the air over an adjacent cabin, and over the next hour it was gingerly loaded onto a waiting trailer, where it would begin the next phase of its journey.

Invaluable partners

 
When talking to anyone involved with the Capitol Christmas tree, one of the first things they are quick to point out is the extensive use of corporate and nonprofit partnerships. Relative to the project, Fitzwilliams emphasized that the Forest Service “can’t do it and that it wouldn’t be right to use taxpayer money.”
 
The public/private partnership has brought in a myriad group of supporters, all of which are managed and coordinated by Bruce Ward at the nonprofit organization, Choose Outdoors. Every year the Forest Service identifies a nonprofit to lead the project, and Choose Outdoors was picked based on its mission: “to work towards reconnecting the American people to the land and each other through nature-based, active, outdoor recreation.” Ward said his goal for this year was to elevate the amount of private sector support to make the project happen.
 
For 2012, Ward said the People’s Tree has a budget of approximately $1 million, half of which comes from cash donations and half from in-kind donations. 
 
Examples of in-kind donations were present on the day of the cutting, including the crew from Tree Medicine, as well as the cranes. One of the high-profile sponsors is Mack Trucks, which is providing two of their Mack Pinnacle trucks — one truck pulls the tree, while another pulls a support trailer.
 


 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Joe Ostrowski makes the final cut on the Capitol Christmas Tree before it is hoisted into the air and loaded onto a trailer.

“This is an American truck carrying an American tree,” said Jim McNamara, manager of marketing and communications for Mack who is traveling with the tree across the country.
 
Another large in-kind donor is the National Association of Convenience Stores, which is providing the fuel for the cross-country trip. An elaborate spreadsheet details participating gas stations along the route.
 
There are 12 people accompanying the tree, including eight members of the Forest Service and two law enforcement officers who provide security for the tree and coordinate with local and state law enforcement, a necessary function considering that the truck and trailer measures 105 feet long. Accommodations for the entire crew are comped along the way by supporting hotels.
 
One of the more dedicated volunteers is the man behind the wheel of the 18-wheeler hauling the tree: Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Colorado U.S. Senator. This is the second time the 79-year-old has piloted the tree, having taken part in a similar journey in 2000. Nighthorse Campbell said participating in the trip was on his “bucket list” and he was looking forward to going to some fun places.
 
Those “fun places” include 30 stops on a 5,004-mile tour of the United States over more than three weeks. Some of the highlights include: a visit to the House of Blues in Dallas; a stop over in St. Louis at an NFL game where the Rams face off against the New York Jets; and a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Nighthorse Campbell is especially looking forward to Thanksgiving Day when he will get to drive the truck around the track at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, turning it into what McNamara calls the “fastest tree in the world.”
 
Barring the high-profile locations, the tree also will see smaller, local venues, such as its stop over this past week at the Glenwood Springs Mall. Santa Claus, who also happens to be a backup driver for Nighthorse Campbell, was on hand to greet children with copious amounts of cookies. Although the tree is wrapped up in a tarp covered in sponsors’ logos, a small plastic cutout at the back of the truck allows the public to have a peek at the mighty evergreen. In the wake of this summer’s devastating Waldo Canyon and High Park wildfires in Colorado, Choose Outdoors is using the tree as a means to draw awareness and raise money for forest restoration efforts, with signs at the truck encouraging donations via text message. A small table staffed by Forest Service employees sold commemorative Christmas ornaments carved out of wood from trees killed by the mountain pine beetle, with the proceeds helping to support the Capitol Christmas tree.

 

Homegrown participation

 
The entire project aims to involve Americans from all walks of life, even if they are unable to see the tree in person. Once the tree arrives in D.C. it will be decorated with more than 3,000 ornaments handmade in Colorado, largely created by schoolchildren. Earlier in the year a songwriting competition was held called Sing4TheTrees, which received nearly 300 submissions. One of the judges on the panel was Chuck Leavell, the keyboardist with the Rolling Stones. The winner of the contest was Lindsay Lawler and her song “Standing Tall,” which she will perform at the Forest Service chief’s reception prior to the lighting of the tree in December. A juried art contest also was held titled “Paint for the Tree,” with the Aspen Art Museum holding a plein air celebration this past August. Cheryl St. John, a Colorado-based artist, won the competition with her piece “Awaiting Spring.” The artwork is traveling with the tree and eventually will hang on the wall of the chief of the Forest Service’s office.

 

Arriving at the Capitol

 
The last weekend in November the tree will arrive at Joint Base Andrews, formerly known as Andrews Air Force Base, outside of D.C. This will be the first year that Andrews has partnered with the tree on its final leg. In prior years the tree was staged in Hershey, Pa. where all of the sponsor logos were stripped down in preparation for the final arrival. A volunteer on this year’s team, Stu McGhee, spent his career in the Air Force coordinating the movement of Titan missiles throughout the country, so the logistics of moving a tree pale in comparison to his prior responsibilities, and with his help a new partnership was born with Andrews.
 
The tree is scheduled to arrive in the Capitol on Monday, Nov. 26, and over the following 10 days Bechtol and his crew will anchor it into the ground and decorate it for the holidays. Speaker of the House John Boehner will preside over the lightning ceremony in early December, and the tree will be on display through the holiday season, with a nightly lighting from dusk to 11 p.m. Following the holiday season, a bit of Colorado will become a permanent part of the Capitol grounds, as the tree will be recycled and used for mulch in the nation’s capitol, adding credence to Fitzwilliams’ thoughts that the entire project is something “that’s bigger than the tree.”
 
To follow the tree’s journey courtesy of SkyBitz, which has installed a GPS tracking device on the truck, go to www.trackthetree.com.


chris@aspendailynews.com