During my first Idaho Christmas, we lived on kidney beans and celery in a camper that sat directly on the cold snow. We slid around on our thrift store-score skis in the snow, arms flailing about with oversized mittens like boxing gloves plugged onto the ends of our spindly arms. My dad had brought his new Stihl chainsaw. We were felling trees for the log cabin we’d eventually build. With much deliberation and ceremony, we chose a tree that would fit in the camper. He fired up the saw, cleared some snow around the trunk, and dropped that tree. It was only about 18 inches tall, so it just kind of tilted into the snow, but we still cheered.

We decorated it with my infant sister’s bibs and binkies. We didn’t know what kind of tree it was, and it looked spindly before decorating, then downright sad afterward. But my Uncle Willis had given us kids a gallon jug of chocolate syrup for Christmas, much to my mother’s delight. All day, we cross-country skied and ate chocolate syrup snow cones, returning to our tiny Christmas tree to find the tiny gifts beneath it.

We were so poor that my parents could only afford an IOU gift certificate for my brother and me. He got one to Army Surplus and I got one to JCPenney. That meant I could buy brand new clothes for possibly the first time in my life. It was the best Christmas ever. And to this day, Christmas tree hunting is a highlight in my family’s annual tradition. I get larger trees, but they aren’t necessarily any prettier.

Living in the great Northwest, it would seem that everyone would have a tree hunting tradition. Some of us don’t know proper tree-hunting etiquette or find farms and parking lots the easiest way to score good trees. But for city folk and flatlanders looking for the full experience of harvesting a tree in the wild, there are a few parameters that can help you get great trees, avoid some nasty fines, and support the forests as well.

 

Guidelines for Christmas Tree Harvesting in Idaho and Washington:

  • Get a Christmas tree permit from a local ranger station. They are $5 each and allow you to legally harvest one tree of up to 15 feet high. Don’t forget to bring your tag or you can be fined for stealing trees, which is not in the Christmas spirit at all.
  • Only harvest on U.S. National Forest lands. Those are often the green blocks on the maps, and when you are grabbing your Christmas tree permit, they will likely offer you a map of those areas. It is not legal to harvest on state lands or to clear a better view in your neighbor’s yard. For the Colville National Forest, purchase a permit from the Colville, Kettle Falls, Newport, or Republic ranger stations. The Idaho Panhandle National Forest collaborates with the Bureau of Land Management to offer permits for trees in both north Idaho and western Montana. You can get a permit for north Idaho National Forest lands at Forest Service offices in Coeur d’Alene, Smelterville, Priest River, or Sandpoint.
  • Take care of the forest. Cedar trees are not to be harvested, and in my opinion alpine Fir make the best trees—preferably cut from a thicket of trees. Topping trees is illegal. Don’t harvest boughs that can damage trees. Leave no more than a 6-inch stump. //

 

Ammi Midstokke has been making ugly trees feel beautiful for decades. With her gift for finding perpetually-leaning trees and collecting kitschy decorations, underprivileged firs and pines have been given the opportunity to reach their full holiday potential.

 

[Originally published in the December 2018 issue of Out There Outdoors under the title “All I Want for Christmas Is a Legal Tree.”]