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The forests that grace Northeastern Oregon are filled with fragrant Christmas gifts — and no fancy ribbons or bows to fiddle with.
You might, though, have to endure the icy indignity of a snow-laden bough dumping its frozen burden down your back, as if you had been ambushed by pranksters on a primary school playground.
Of course some people prefer to prowl a parking lot to find the perfect Christmas tree.
Your boots stay clean (or at least cleaner) and your hands stay warm (or at least warmer).
Most likely you won’t get your rig stuck in a snowdrift.
Yet no commercial venture can surpass, for sheer selection, anyway, the national forests.
For $5 you can cut your Christmas tree almost anywhere on the Wallowa-Whitman or Umatilla national forest.
The toughest dilemma is picking the type of tree. Several local conifers make suitable Christmas trees.
Nursery-raised trees, to be sure, tend to be the supermodels of the holiday season, with straight trunks and evenly spaced, unblemished branches.
Out in the woods, by contrast, where trees rarely grow in orderly rows and no one except an occasional windstorm prunes the unsightly limbs, almost every specimen shows at least a superficial flaw or two a crooked stance, perhaps, or a gap in its foliage too gaping to be concealed with lights or tinsel.
For most tree-hunters, though, the main attraction to cutting their own tree is the adventure.
Searching the snowy forest for an attractive tree is for many families a holiday tradition as necessary as wrapping presents and singing carols.
When you’ve hung the last ornament and checked the last light bulb you feel you’ve truly accomplished something.
After all, you trudged through the balsam-scented groves and inspected dozens of specimens before finally settling on one that every member of the family considers worthy.
Or perhaps you were fortunate and found the perfect tree just a few minutes after you pulled off the highway.
Vying for your attention (and the hallowed place in your home) are:
This species probably graces more local living rooms during the holidays than any other type of tree.
Grand firs are abundant, they grow at lower elevations that aren’t always plagued by SUV-swallowing snow drifts, and their well-placed branches invite creative ornament placement.
A telltale trait of the grand fir is its needles. They form flat rows on opposite sides of each branch, as if someone had placed the branch between the pages of a thick book and then slammed the book shut.
And then sat on it for an hour.
Full-grown subalpine firs are easy to recognize from their slender, dart-like shape. But in juvenile form they sometimes resemble grand firs.
A distinguishing characteristic of the subalpine fir is its needles. They grow at all angles from the limb, rather than in flat, orderly rows as a grand fir’s do.
A person might mistake a spruce for a fir, but there’s an easy way to tell which is which: grab a limb.
If you think you just poked a porcupine, you just touched a spruce.
Spruce needles are stiff and have sharp edges, unlike the softer, more finger-friendly firs.
Spruce trees usually grow in wet areas, and often are found in groves near streams.
If the spruce’s prickly nature puts you off, consider this — the species is good enough to serve as the nation’s official Christmas tree.
An 84-year-old, 80-foot Engelmann spruce felled on Nov. 2 near McCall, Idaho, arrived this week in Washington, D.C., where it will stand on the lawn of the Capitol and be lavished with LED lights and 6,000 ornaments made by Idaho schoolchildren.
Lodgepole pines are easy to find, but lodgepole pines that make good Christmas trees are not.
Lodgepoles of the right height tend to be a bit sparse of limb and a bit unkempt in appearance, as though they had slept in an alley.
Lodgepoles are the only pines native to Oregon whose needle bundles contain two needles (ponderosa pines have three needles per bundle, white and whitebark pines have five).
Ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir/white pine
Forest Service officials encourage Christmas tree hunters to not cut any of these species, although it is legal to take home any of the three.
Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir are valuable commercial trees, so Forest Service officials prefer to preserve as many as possible.
That’s not a troublesome task, though, because neither species is much coveted as a Christmas decoration. A few families are faithful to ponderosa pines, but their long, limber needles defy even nimble-fingered ornament-hangers.
Douglas-firs, at least the adolescent ones that are the right size for a Christmas tree, often seem slightly sickly.
White pines make good Christmas trees, but they are rare in Northeastern Oregon.
A whitebark pine decorated with tinsel and colored lights is as rare as Bigfoot.
The reason is simple: whitebarks grow at such high elevations (they’re rarely found below 7,000 feet) that by Christmas tree-hunting season, the snow usually is so deep as to block even the most adventurous person from reaching whitebark country.
And if you needed another reason not to cut a whitebark pine for a Christmas tree, the species grows so slowly in its harsh alpine environment that a tree large enough to hold even half your ornaments almost certainly is decades older than you are.
If you cheer for the underdog you might appreciate this little joke.
Tamarack, a colloquialism for the western larch, is the confused conifer that thinks it’s some sort of elm, or maybe a maple. Every autumn tamarack needles change from green to yellow or orange. Then the needles fall to the ground, just like leaves. By December, most tamaracks appear to be dead.
This makes them a poor choice for display in your front room.
Christmas Tree Tips
They cost $5 each, and the limit is one permit per household. Permits are available at all Forest Service offices, as well as at many private vendors:
• Halfway Market, Halfway
• Hometown Hardware, Union
• Dollar Stretcher, Enterprise
• Burnt River Market, Unity
• York’s Park Grocery, Baker City
• Hitchin’ Post Grocery, Richland
• O&M Gas and Grocery, Elgin
• Sports Corral, Joseph
• Wallowa Food City, Wallowa
• Bi-Mart stores in Baker City and La Grande
WHERE CAN I CUT?
Anywhere on national forest land (make sure you’re not on private property) except: campgrounds; Baker City and La Grande watersheds; Anthony Lakes Ski Area; signed old-growth forests; active timber sales or areas where tree seedlings have been planted recently; wilderness areas; Starkey Experimental Forest; Hurricane Creek and Lostine River corridors; within a quarter-mile of a wild and scenic stream (Eagle Creek, North Powder River and North Fork John Day River are the three nearest Baker City; within 20 feet of a stream channel.
• Don’t cut a tree that’s taller than 20 feet, or has a trunk with a diameter of more than 6 inches
• Leave stumps no taller than 10 inches, and remove branches from the stump
• Look for a tree that has similar-sized or larger trees within 20 feet
• Don’t cut a tree that’s within view of a state highway, or within 50 feet of any road
• Before you load the tree into your rig, punch out the day, month and year from your permit, and strap it to the tree trunk with the plastic tie that comes with the permit
• You can keep any branches you trim from your tree
• Bring warm clothes, food and water for you and your fellow tree hunters, and tire chains for your vehicle. Snowplows rarely venture onto forest roads. Although service is spotty in the mountains, bring a cellphone too.
• If you don’t promptly set your tree in its stand, store the tree outside. Pick a place protected from the wind, and plunk the trunk into a bucket of water. Just before you lug the tree inside, cut the bottom of the trunk about one inch above the original cut. Top off the water in the stand at least once a day possibly more often during the first few days, during which the tree tends to absorb more water.