Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the name of the tree’s ultimate location, the Capitol.
For the first time, Alaska will be represented in Washington D.C. in the form of this year’s Capitol Christmas tree. The tree uprooted from the Kenai Peninsula on Tuesday just outside of Seward in the Chugach National Forest is part of an annual program run by the U.S. Forest Service.
The felling of the roughly 75-foot Lutz spruce — a hybrid of the Sitka spruce and the white spruce — drew dozens of Alaska residents to the site about 300 feet off the highway. More people joined the tree at a post-celebration at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. People gathered nearly two hours prior to the cutting ceremony in anticipation of the conifer’s last moments.
A loud signal, a roar from the chainsaw and about a minute later, it was over. The mammoth spruce was slowly turned horizontal, trimmed down and affixed to the trailer that will be its home for about the next three weeks as it journeys from Alaska to Washington, D.C., where it will be placed and lit on the west lawn of the Capitol.
A log-istical challenge
Choose Outdoors, a nonprofit founded by Bruce Ward, has been the major U.S. Forest Service partner in the project since 2012. Ward spearheaded coordination of the spruce’s transportation and raising corporate and other money, since the federal government cannot solicit donations.
“There are so many pieces of this, right? Everything from working with the lead senator, to the Architect of the Capitol, to truck drivers to local communities,” Ward said. “It’s like a huge puzzle piece.”
Architect of the Capitol Ted Bechtol reigns over the 275 acres of Capitol grounds, and is in charge of making the final tree selection each year. Other than the wages of federal employees, like those in the U.S. Forest Service, the program is funded almost exclusively through donations, he said.
So far, the project has cost more than $600,000 in cash and in-kind donations, Ward said. This is based on estimates, he said, and the final tally will likely be higher.
While most families can hack down and decorate a tree in an afternoon, Ward and Bechtol said making sure the Capitol’s tree is home for Christmas is a bit more prickly. First, not all trees are right for the job. Bechtol and the U.S. Forest Service have a list of requirements the trees must meet.
“We were looking for something that looked fairly uniform from all sides,” said Mona Spargo, Capitol Tree Project Coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. “Just, you know, a tree that looks stunning to us.”
Advanced Sawyer Dan Osborn with the U.S. Forest Service had to cut the Lutz spruce down from about 75 feet to 67 feet before it was secured onto its trailer. Osborn is one of several sawyers for the Chugach’s Seward Ranger District certified to cut down trees of this size, and is responsible for training others, he said.
Osborn said he doesn’t often take down large trees because there is not a need for them, but has tackled logs up to 4 feet in diameter in the past. Tuesday’s Lutz spruce was about 18 inches in diameter, he said.
“I’m pretty comfortable,” Osborn said prior to cutting the tree. “It’s just like this is a neat opportunity here that’s only going to happen once. … We knew that we were going to be hosting the Christmas tree, but I didn’t realize how in-depth it was until the last couple weeks.”
In addition to size, the Capitol tree has to have full, attractive branches that reach all the way to the forest floor, said Amanda Villwock, a natural resources specialist with the U.S. Forest Service who was tasked with identifying contenders within the Chugach National Forest. It should also be conical in shape, she said.
“Certain forests may not have what we think of as typical Christmas trees,” Bechtol said, adding that the appearance, height and type of tree will vary greatly depending on which region of the country it comes from. Bechtol flew to Alaska in May to make the final selection from the six finalists Villwock chose during three weeks dedicated to walking the woods off of major roads in search of a worthy specimen. Villwock will travel with the tree to the Capitol and is in charge of its health throughout the journey.
“It’s a tree that’s been open-grown all of its life,” Villwock said. “Once they got picked, there were a few storms after that, that I was worried about it making it.”
A 60-gallon “bladder” will be attached to the spruce to keep it hydrated, and Villwock said she may have to refill it as often as twice a day in warmer conditions.
Once the tree departs from Seward this week, it beings an almost 4,000 mile trip cross-country that will involve hopping a ship from Anchorage to Seattle. One man will drive the truck and trailer holding the spruce throughout the entire journey. John Schank has not had a single recordable accident in more than 40 years working for Lynden Transport, he said.
“(I’ve) logged over 5 million miles on the haul road … from Fairbanks to Prudhoe (Bay),” Schank said, adding that he is excited for a cross-country trip, something he hasn’t done before. “The only worries are the logistics to make sure everything is compatible where I can get around with this trailer and this tree. You know, make turns and (get) in and out of places.”
In all, the tree will make 13 stops along its way to Washington D.C.. Once there, three teams will work to secure, decorate and string the tree with lights, Bechtol said. The actual lighting of the conifer will take place on Dec. 2, according to the project’s website.
“The logistics and solving that problem, getting a tree out of the woods and across the country… navigating the highways and truck stops and overnight stays, is quite a job. It’s quite a logistical challenge sometimes,” Bechtol said.
The state of Alaska makes up an entire region of the U.S. Forest Service on its own. Of the agency’s nine regions, Alaska is the only one to have never been selected to find the Capitol’s Christmas tree until now.
Regional Forester Beth Pendleton said the U.S. Forest Service Chief, who decides which forest the tree will come from each year, approached her about finding one three years ago. At that point, Pendleton had only two national forests in the region to choose from: the Chugach and the Tongass.
“My first feeling went to the Chugach,” she said. “I had some discretion, but the Chugach had the capacity, had the sponsors and partnerships, because we have to provide all the sponsorships to make this happen.”
Seeing the harvest of the spruce come to fruition after three long years, Pendleton said the event has been exciting for all the staff involved.
“It symbolizes so much of what Alaska’s about and the connection of the people to their land,” she said.
Choosing Alaska as the host region meant changes to the process, including the cost, Ward said. In the years since Ward and Choose Outdoors have been a partner in the project, the cost of getting the tree to D.C. has ranged from $400,000-$500,000, compared to this year’s $600,000, he said.
“Obviously the transportation is the biggest cost that we’re faced with,” Ward said.
Shell, one of many sponsors, donated gas for the long trip.
Spreading Alaska roots
While at the Capitol, the Lutz spruce will represent not only the state of Alaska, but also its diverse people and culture. More than 2,000 handmade ornaments made by Alaska youth, residents and tribe members will adorn the tree and serve as a way to communicate the Alaska way of life.
Members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe contributed more than 200 ornaments, said Alexandra “Sasha” Lindgren, a former director of tribal government affairs. Young and old alike came together at workshops to make drums, mittens and other decorations, before taking them home to be finished, she said.
One of the best things to come out of the ornament making was the fact that young tribe members were learning skills — like how to use the traditional ulu knife — from their elders.
“This project is about strengthening bonds of community and family,” Lindgren said.
Before the tree was felled Tuesday, Kenaitze tribe member and Culture Bearer Jon Ross blessed it with sage, a cleansing plant, and a prayer for a safe journey. Part of that entailed asking for the tree’s permission, as a living thing, to give its life to be on display at the Capitol, he said.
“I was honored to be asked to be a part of this,” Ross said. “I was kind of wondering how they were going to take a 65-foot tree and get it down without breaking a bunch of branches.”
Some residents present at the cutting ceremony wanted to be part of such a unique event in their community. Gladys Nichols, Chris Degernes and Keith Freeman, all of Cooper Landing, have all lived in Alaska for 30 to 40 years and said the ceremony was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It’s about time,” Degernes said.
“It’s hard to believe,” Freeman added. “You know, there’s plenty of trees down there (the Lower 48). To pack one down (thousands of) miles, and all the volunteers …”
Degernes said she has been impressed by the level of donations and involvement from businesses in the state.
Ward echoed those sentiments, saying that the people he has met through this year’s project are unique.
“I hadn’t really been to Alaska until this effort, and I have really come to enjoy and appreciate the really special nature of people who live and work in Alaska.”
The tree’s progress across the U.S. can be tracked at capitolchristmastree.com/the-tour/.