Pueblo, CO - The San Isabel National Forests Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands is one of six U.S. Forest Service districts offering Southern Colorado families the chance to start a new holiday tradition by cutting down their own Christmas tree, which offers the unexpected gift of helping to mitigate future forest fires. Fourth and fifth-grade students holding an Every Kid Outdoors pass get an additional gift as they can apply for one free Christmas Tree permit through the online system.
According to Crystal Young, public affairs specialist for the Pike and San Isabel National Forest and Comanche Grasslands, removal of the smaller trees contributes to the overall wellbeing of the forest and helps to reduce fire danger. The funds from Christmas tree permits go back to the participating Forest through Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act funding requirements.
Young noted that Christmas tree cutting is allowed throughout the San Carlos Ranger District except at campgrounds, trailheads, ski areas, wilderness areas, and the recreation area around Lake Isabel. She advised that visitors also should take the entire tree, not just the tops, and avoid trees with signs, paint or flagging. Trees should have a base of less than 6 inches and a height of less than 15 feet.
The Christmas tree program is but one part of the Forest Service’s thinning plan as the permits allow Forest Service officials to calculate where additional tree removal may be necessary.
“We know how many permits are available and how many are sold by each district, which then factors into our overall plan for thinning activities in those districts,” she said.
And 2020 has been historically bad for forest fires. The two largest wildfires in Colorado’s recent history descended on the Rocky Mountains this year. The Cameron Peak fire arrived from the north while the East Troublesome fire approached from the west, sending flames over the Continental Divide and forcing the evacuation of Estes Park. Since May, wildfires have scorched more than 600,000 acres in Colorado and razed more than 550 structures. Big wildfires typically correspond with droughts, and this year is no exception. Nearly half of Colorado is currently in extreme drought.
In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Matthew Hurteau, a forest ecologist at the University of New Mexico, explained that thinning alters the way that fire interacts with the forest.
“By reducing the number of small-diameter trees, you break what we call a fuel ladder from the forest floor into the canopy of the overstory trees. And then the other thing is that the crowns of the overstory trees are further apart, which makes it more challenging for fire to move from one tree crown to the next.”
The result is that if trees are a little less dense, the fire also will move a little less quickly.
Young said most districts already have reported a doubling of permit sales, and she expects double the normal in the San Carlos district by the end of season. COVID is one consideration for the increase in permits as families seek safe holiday activities. But the major fires (Cameron Peak and East Troublesome) closed two of the possible areas for Christmas tree removal which diverted those cutters into other forests.
“The program offers a safe activity for families and helps us to manage density in the forest. With all those good and positive considerations, there’s no reason not to have a real Christmas tree in your house this year,” Young said.
Permits for the San Carlos district will be sold at $10 per permit online or mail in this year through December 24 at Recreation.gov. with a limit of two permits per household. A $2.50 service fee exists for on-line sales only. For mail-in permit requests, mail a check or money order payable to "USDA Forest Service" along with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: ATTN: Christmas Tree Permit, San Carlos Ranger District, 3028 E. Main St., Canon City, CO 81212.
Each permit has a unique number associated with it so permits purchased through the Recreation.gov website must be printed to be valid. Visitors will need to display the printed permit on the dash of their vehicle on the day they visit the forest to cut their tree.
Visitors cutting or removing trees from the National Forest without a valid permit are subject to a fine of up to $5000 and/or 6 months imprisonment.
Contact: Crystal Young, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, 719-248-8970