In the 2.3 million acres that make up the Payette National Forest, there is a single tree with a major holiday destiny to fulfill.
The Christmas tree that adorns the Capitol lawn in Washington, D.C., this year will come from Idaho. Now that the snow is melting up high, the hunt for the perfect tree is on.
Finding the Capitol Christmas tree is a lot like what most families do each year, just on a much bigger scale.
“It needs to be between 60 and 85 feet tall, so it’s a huge tree," explains Brian Harris from the Payette National Forest. "It needs to have that shape and color, and all the branches filled in -- really the same thing you’d be looking for in that ideal Christmas tree for your house.”
Harris says the Payette has delegated the tree-hunting work to an unlikely crew: the smokejumpers. He thinks it's the first time the elite wildland firefighters have been enlisted for this kind of work.
Smokejumpers aren't silviculturalists, but Harris says they know the forest as well as anyone in the Payette.
The tree they're looking for will likely be a Douglas fir, grand fir or Engelmann spruce. Harris says they considered going with something more geographically unique to Idaho, like a tamarack (also called a western larch), but decided against it.
"In the wintertime tamaracks drop all their needles… like a Charlie Brown tree," he jokes.
The smokejumpers anticipate choosing a final tree by July. Once the tree is harvested later this fall, it'll embark on a celebrity road trip of sorts to Washington, D.C., before fulfilling its destiny as a beacon of holiday cheer.
The last time a Capitol Christmas tree came from Idaho was in 2003. The 65-foot Engelmann spruce came from the Boise National Forest, up the Middle Fork of the Payette near the town of Garden Valley.