US Capitol Christmas Tree

The story behind the 80-foot Christmas tree outside the U.S. Capitol

Monday, December 05, 2016

McClatchy DC, December 5, 2016- In the last 52 years, both the size of the Capitol Christmas Tree and the cost of getting it to Washington, D.C., have increased considerably.

In 1964, when the lighting of the tree became a yearly tradition, federal officials selected a 24-foot Douglas fir from a Pennsylvania nursery that cost $700.

When Boise fifth-grader Isabella Gerard flips the switch on the Capitol’s west lawn on Tuesday, she’ll light up an 80-foot Engelmann spruce from Idaho’s Payette National Forest that cost an estimated $600,000 to move across the country.

The good news for taxpayers: Corporate sponsors donated most of the money for the 2016 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree.

he 84-year-old tree, cut on Nov. 2 from Little Ski Hill just west of McCall, is just one of many Idaho trees sprucing up the nation’s capital this year.

While the arrival of the big tree on a 105-foot-long red truck got all the attention last Monday, Idaho also sent a second truck with another 69 trees, mostly Fraser firs. They were distributed to offices of various members of Congress and federal agencies.

Getting the Capitol Christmas Tree to Washington, D.C., each year has become a major production.

Alaska provided the tree last year, the first time it came from outside the lower 48 states. After it was cut in the Chugach National Forest, the tree spent three days on a ship, going to Tacoma, Wash., where it was loaded on a flatbed truck and sent to Capitol Hill.

Washington state and Minnesota provided the tallest trees on record, both 88 feet, according to the Architect of the Capitol’s office. Washington sent an Engelmann spruce from the Colville National Forest in 2013, while Minnesota provided a white spruce from the Chippewa National Forest in 2014.

Ted Bechtel, the superintendent of the U.S. Capitol Grounds, said that Montana has already been chosen to provide the tree in 2017.

Bechtel gets the final say in choosing the tree. He went to Idaho in July to select this year’s winner from among about a dozen finalists chosen by staff at the Payette National Forest.

“They provide the candidates and then it’s my job to select the tree,” he said. “I do this year after year – this is my 12th tree, so I sort of know what’s going to look good up on the lawn.”

After the tree arrived from Idaho last week and a crane lifted it into place, Bechtel arranged for a crew of 25 to 35 workers to decorate it.

At a news conference last week, Stephen Ayers, the architect of the Capitol, said the Idaho tree had a good overall shape and color, along with solid branches. They’re needed for all of the LED lights and the 6,000 ornaments made by hand by Idaho children.

“What a pilgrimage it’s been on – more than 2,500 miles on a remarkable journey,” Ayers said.

Brian Harris, public affairs officer for the Payette National Forest Service, said the tree made 30 stops before arriving on Capitol Hill, traveling through Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

“There were a few things that were a little nerve-wracking,” he said. “But it’s a big project. It kind of looks simple: Pick a tree, cut it and deliver it to the U.S. Capitol, but it’s not quite that simple.”

The biggest scare came on Nov. 6, when Brandalyn Crapo, an Idaho state trooper and the granddaughter of Republican Sen. Mike Crapo’s first cousin, was injured while leading the motorcade for the tree from McCall to Boise. A pickup truck crossed the center line and collided with her patrol car.

“She’s OK. She broke her hand, but she’s going to be at the lighting ceremony,” said Keith Lannom, supervisor of the Payette National Forest Service.

Lannom provided the $600,000 estimate on costs, but said that the final total won’t be known until January, after an audit is completed. Lannom said the public costs include the salaries of eight Forest Service personnel who helped move the tree. Corporate donations total about $500,000.

The tree drank 20 gallons of water each day during the cross-country trip. And its branches, which were 26 feet wide, had to be trimmed down and bent to fit on the truck. The tree was accompanied by two law enforcement vehicles and one forest service vehicle.

Gary Amoth, a truck driver from Twin Falls, Idaho, who hauled the tree, said thousands of spectators met the tree on its stops across the country.

“The people were fantastic – it renewed my hope in America,” Amoth said.

Jade Sumsion, a law enforcement officer with the Forest Service, called the trip “a once-in-a-career event for us.” He said his favorite stop was in Weiser, Idaho, where the motorcade was met with a local firetruck with its ladder extended and a huge flag hanging over the top of a tree.

He said everything went smoothly after the accident in Idaho.

“Making turns is not an easy feat, and blocking roads is the thing that people don’t think about, pushing back the traffic so that truck can get through town,” Sumsion said.

Isabella, who’s 10 years old and attends St. Mary’s Catholic School, arrived in Washington on Friday, making her first trip to the city with her parents, sister, grandparents, aunt, uncle and three cousins. She planned to visit the White House, the Smithsonian museums and take a tour of the monuments.

At 5 p.m on Tuesday, she’ll light the tree, which is adorned with 20 pounds of glitter. With her will be Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Crapo. Gates will open at 4 p.m., with no tickets required.

“I think it’s going to be really exciting,” Isabella said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Crapo selected the girl for the honor after she wrote a poem titled “Pristine Idaho Mountains,” describing what snow does to the mountains and forests in her state: “making the landscape look like never-ending clouds with skyscrapers covered in snow.”

Isabella said it took her two to three weeks to write the poem as she sorted through “a bunch of ideas.” When she got the word that she had been chosen for the trip to Washington, she said: “I was surprised and, like, really happy.”

Kim Pierson, a district ranger with the Forest Service who coordinated public events during the tree’s 30 stops, said it brought joy to thousands.

“Out of 10,000 people, we had one grump – he just wasn’t happy that it was taking too long,” she said. “I’m a botanist and for me, this is a magnificent tree. I love Idaho and this really represents the Idaho spirit and how hard we work and how much we love our public lands. ... I’m so proud of us, that we were able to share Idaho with the nation.”

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob

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