This story was co-published with KVNF, Mountain Grown Public Radio.
The temperature was unseasonably warm for early November at 9,000 feet above sea level – where the aspens meet the pines – on Colorado’s Uncompahgre Plateau. A tall, stout man with a long, mustache-less beard was grinding an orange Stihl chainsaw through the trunk of a massive evergreen in front of 100 mostly-masked spectators.
“I’ve cut a lot of trees, so it wasn’t a whole lot different…But it was kind of neat, cutting one for the Capitol Building,” said Harvey Gray, a sawyer and a 50-plus year veteran of the logging industry in the West.
On that day, November 5, he had to fell a 55-foot tall Engleman Spruce that will soon become a national treasure. The harvest was taking place about 30 miles outside of Montrose, deep in the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest affectionately called the GMUG, or “gee-mug.”
For the past five decades, the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree has been plucked from public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and beginning this week, the tree will wind through small towns in the Colorado mountains before reaching its ultimate destination – the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Millions of trees are found in this massive, 3-million acre national forest. Beth Anderson is a soil and water specialist with the GMUG and was one of the employees responsible for finding the perfect tree, worthy of national display.
“We knew we were the 2020 Christmas tree before the field season started. So we encouraged employees to go out and find the tree,” Anderson said. “We had parameters: ‘Does it look like a Christmas tree, size, shape, and what not?…As we were out doing our work, we would sometimes say ‘That looks like a good Christmas tree!’”
In a typical year, the U.S. Capitol Architect would visit the national forest and hand pick a tree. But Anderson said that with Covid, 2020 is anything but a typical year. So GMUG employees rounded up 15 finalists, and those trees competed in what Anderson called a “pageant of trees.”
“Because of Covid, traveling was not going to happen, so we did it virtually,” he said. “We took lots of pictures and video of the trees on the forest and sent that to him [the architect] and had a meeting with our new way of conducting business – online – and he selected the tree from the 15.”
The harvest ceremony was a full-scale production with a band, satellite trucks that provide wi-fi for live streaming, radio and print journalists, filmmakers and television crews, the public, and the folks who accompany the tree on its journey.
Folks like James Mills with Choose Outdoors, a Colorado-based nonprofit that promotes access, use, and the future of public lands. Mills is the official photographer for the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree and since 2015 has documented the tree from its origin in various national forests to its final resting place in Washington, D.C.
“It’s been remarkable. I’ve been able to go to communities all over the country…We literally have seen all of America on this journey,” Mills said. “And the people we meet are the people you want to meet. These are the people you don’t see on television or hear on the radio. These are the people that make up America.”
This is Mills’ second trip on the U.S. Capitol Tree Tour during an election year.
“Inevitably, there’s some political strife going on at some point,” he said. “But what is amazing is that politics never enters the picture. No matter who we’re talking to, we collectively agree that delivering an evergreen to the people of America in Washington, D.C. is an amazing thing.”
This tradition dates back to 1913, where the first People’s Tree – a 40-foot Norway Spruce – was lit up with red, white, and blue lights on the East Front Plaza of the U.S. Capitol for the nation’s first “Community Christmas.” But within only two years, the newly-formed tradition was canceled due to lack of funds.
A revival came about in 1964, as Speaker of the House John W. McCormack (D-MA) declared: “[It is] most appropriate that a Christmas tree be placed in the Capitol, which is the heart of legislative activity of our country.” A live Douglas fir was shipped from Buddies Nursery in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania. It was planted on the West Lawn before dying in a massive windstorm three years later.
Trees started coming from public lands in various national forests in 1970, which makes the 2020 tree the semicentennial.
In the late ’90s, the “Capitol Christmas Tree” was renamed “The Capitol Holiday Tree.” In 2005 then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert reverted the name back to its current Christian-centric theme.
While the tree is an annual Christmas or holiday tradition, Mills said this year’s tree is more than just a mark of the season.
“It symbolizes peace in our time. It symbolizes for me the hope of what America can be,” Mills said. “This is indeed the people’s tree. It is a reflection of all of what we collectively own as citizens of this country. This is yours… [Let’s] make sure a generation from now we will have trees and a forest…so we can keep doing this for another 100 years.”
Montrose County is staunchly conservative and voted nearly 2-to-1 for Donald Trump over Joe Biden. But no scent of national politics wafted through the air at last Thursday’s ceremony as the nation awaited the final tallies of the election.
Keith Caddy, Republican chairman of the board of the Montrose County Commissioners, spoke of the spruce as an emblem that can inspire healing in a nation desperate to move beyond conflict.
“I hope this tree, in some small way, will bring some unity to the people of this country, especially in Washington where things are all hectic and hateful, where people aren’t getting along at all,” he said.
“Maybe just for a few minutes, they can stand around the tree and leave it – in the Senate, House, president’s office – and join in peace and harmony, just for a few minutes. I hope that’s what we can give the people in Washington.”
The tree will be delivered to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on November 20. The tree’s tour, and the stories shared along the way, can be tracked at USCapitolChristmasTree.com.