It’s official: Northwest Montana will supply an extra member to the Treasure State’s delegation in Washington, D.C., next Christmas.
For the third time since the tradition began in 1970, Montana will gain national bragging rights in 2017 when the Kootenai National Forest sends a Christmas Tree to grace the Capitol Lawn through the holiday season.
The Capitol Christmas Tree, alternately called “The People’s Tree,” is selected each year from one of the country’s national forests, an honor accompanied by dozens of smaller “companion trees” and thousands of hand-crafted ornaments from across its home state.
“We’re pretty excited that it’s going to showcase the state, the forest and all aspects of Montana,” forest supervisor Chris Savage said in an interview Thursday. “I think part of it, too, the region really wanted to try to turn the corner around part of the issues that Libby has dealt with, the asbestos issue and so forth. Now that some of that is behind us, we think this is a great opportunity to put Libby in a positive light for a change.”
Forest officials were notified of the selection in October, and will begin surveying candidate trees once the melting snows open up access to the woods in the spring. After tree specialists from the agency narrow the selection down to a handful of Englemann spruces and Douglas firs, the Superintendent of Capitol Grounds, Ted Bechtol, will fly in from Washington to make the final decision.
Like the millions of Americans who flock to Christmas tree nurseries and parking lots for their holiday centerpiece each year, Bechtol will carefully scrutinize his options before selecting the ideal specimen.
Erin Courtney, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Capitol Architect, said the winning conifer will be chosen based on the uniformity of its shape, its clean bill of health, its height (typically between 60 and 80 feet) and the uniformity of its foliage. A truly upstanding Christmas tree must also possess a trunk that’s straight as an arrow.
Besides Eureka’s historical prominence as the former “Christmas Tree Capital of the World,” Northwest Montana’s Kootenai National Forest has also earned the distinction of being the Capitol Christmas Tree’s birthplace once before.
During Montana’s centennial in 1989, then-Capitol Grounds Landscape Architect Paul Pincus selected a 60-foot Englemann spruce from the Pipe Creek area north of Libby as the People’s Tree.
Pincus described his tree-selection method in a Nov. 12, 1989 story in the Daily Inter Lake, explaining, “I look for a tree that is imposing.”
The story noted that Bill Crismore, then-president of the Montana Logging Association and the 1983 Montana Lumberman of the Year, was given the honor of chopping down the 60-year-old pine tree.
The second Capitol Christmas Tree selected from the Last Best Place was more recent, when a 78-foot sub-alpine fir from the Bitterroot National Forest made the trip to the Washington in 2008.
But the Kootenai still has an edge on the Bitterroot: Before the National Christmas Tree — a long-standing rival of the People’s Tree — –became a permanent, living fixture on the White House lawn, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower hit the lights on a 75-foot Englemann from the Kootenai during the annual celebration in 1958.
WHILE CHOOSING, cutting, transporting and decorating a Christmas tree can be a substantial undertaking for any family during the holidays, logistical planning for the 2017 Capitol Tree is already underway.
Sandy Mason, the Kootenai Forest staffer heading up the project, said communities across Montana will be tapped in the coming months to provide as many as 8,000 ornaments to adorn the Capitol Tree, along with around 60 smaller trees from other forests in the state that will reside in government offices across D.C.
“I’ll be going to schools in Lincoln County and the Flathead, just through the whole state we’ve got a ton of creative people,” Mason said.
Given that the tree could rise as high as an eight-story building, she added that those dimensions will need to be up to a foot in diameter — and be bright and shiny — to stand out. They will also reflect a yet-to-be-chosen annual theme for the tree. This year’s theme, “An Idaho Mountain Gem,” included burlap potato bags to reflect the selection of an 80-foot Englemann spruce from Idaho’s Payette National Forest.
“I think that’s going to be our first push, in looking at opportunities in schools and community events,” Savage said.
An even more daunting logistical hurdle lies in figuring out the Tannenbaum’s ground transportation. Per the Forest Service’s holiday tradition, the tree will take a meandering path through cities and towns across the U.S. There’s even a dedicated website — TrackTheTree.com — where Capitol-Tree enthusiasts can track its progress.
Last month, the Payette Forest’s tree attracted tens of thousands of spectators as it criss-crossed 11 states and 2,500 miles before its installation on the Capitol Lawn.
Savage said he will make sure the communities peppered throughout the Kootenai National Forest are included in the first leg of the journey.
The tree’s theme for 2017 could be unveiled as soon as next month, Mason said. She shares in the region’s pride as one of just two forests in the state chosen for the Capitol Tree, but also noted it will entail a heavy workload for the next 12 months.
“I think it will be kind of a fun job,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get things rolling. ... There’s quite a bit of help out there, but it’s going to be a job on our part.”