Careful cutting sends Colorado conifer on trip to Washington

A local law enforcement officer takes a picture as this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree is readied for loading onto a truck following its removal from the national forest east of Meeker Friday.

Jerry Horton of Tree Medicine in Englewood got the job of climbing a 73-foot Engelmann Spruce Friday to attach the cable from a crane so it could be lifted into the air to begin its journey to the U.S. Capitol.

MEEKER—Dan Schwartz hadn’t given much thought to the 73-foot Engelmann spruce sitting near cabins at his Ripple Creek Lodge in the White River National Forest until it became a candidate for this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.

By Friday morning, however, as the tree was being removed to start its trip to Washington, D.C., after making the final cut, as it were, Schwartz acknowledged he would miss the stately conifer.

“I spent all summer looking at the thing, once it was a contender,” Schwartz said.

Still, he said it was an honor to have a tree selected on land that’s part of his special permit with the forest’s Blanco Ranger District out of Meeker. And he said Friday’s tree-cutting was a great opportunity in terms of media exposure and reacquainting locals with a lodge that had been closed for a few years.

“It was a good event to get the local people back up here,” said Schwartz, who with his wife, Keri, bought the lodge in 2010.

A few hundred people turned out Friday to watch the tree’s removal, and many took pride in the fact that it’s coming from the Meeker area.

Lifetime Meeker resident Samantha Lopez, who took her two young boys to see the occasion, said it’s a big event for not just the town but all of Rio Blanco County. It was great “to have this kind of recognition, to have something out of our national forest” going to the nation’s capital, she said.

“This is a thrill for Meeker,” said Meeker resident Kay Bumguardner as she watched the tree being loaded by crane onto a Mack truck.

“It has to be 75 years old, this tree. What a thrill for it to be the national Christmas tree.”

She then added as an aside, “That crane driver, he’s doing good.”

Ted Bechtel, superintendent of the U.S. Capitol grounds, also praised the work of the Specialized Crane & Rigging operator. Bechtel’s in charge of the annual tree project and was able to breathe easier after the tree had been safely cut and lifted by crane to a nearby road and onto the truck.

Working with the U.S. Forest Service, Bechtel had a secondary tree available in the White River National Forest had problems arisen with this one. He said the tree harvested Friday was chosen for the Capitol based on characteristics such as its conical shape, height, density of branches and uniformity of appearance. It will be able to be viewed from 360 degrees, he said.

“It can’t be a Charlie Brown tree. It can’t have a bad side” that can be shoved in a corner, he said.

Blanco District Ranger Ken Coffin and Natasha Goedert, a wildlife biologist for the district and the logistics coordinator for the tree project, scoped out a number of trees for Bechtel to consider. Goedert said one attraction for the tree that was selected was its proximity to an existing road, which meant that a new one didn’t have to be built.

The honor of providing the Capitol Christmas tree rotates among various states and national forests from year to year. U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.

He told spectators Friday that having the tree come out of the district and Colorado is a point of regional pride.

“There was a tree from California last year. We’re going to show them what a real tree looks like,” he joked.

White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told the crowd, “It’s more than a tree. It’s really a gift from Colorado to the nation.”

“There are so many people who have rallied around this tree,” said Bruce Ward, founder of the nonprofit organization Choose Outdoors.

Choose Outdoors is a partner in the tree project, and Ward pointed to the numerous sponsors that have gotten behind it.

One sponsor is Mack Trucks, which is providing the transportation for the tree, with former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado behind the wheel.

Friday’s event drew people from around Colorado and beyond.

Ute tribal members Wayne and Carrie Marsh were invited to travel from Towaoc, in southern Colorado’s Four Corners region.

They had made Ute-themed ornaments such as tepees and moccasins that were chosen for use on the tree.

“This is something special for us. We’ve come a long way” to attend, Carrie Marsh said.

Tom Piccirrili of Lakewood said his family has been coming to the lodge for decades, and when he saw the tree’s location on the grounds he realized he has old pictures of his children beneath the tree.

“It finally registered that it’s right there, that’s where the kids were at,” he said.

Edwin Quwe of Carson City, Nev., is staying at the lodge for an elk hunt.

He’ll be going home with lots of pictures of the tree’s removal and the hubbub that surrounded it.

“I didn’t think you’d go through all this for the Capitol tree,” he said.

Joe Ostrowski is owner of Tree Medicine, the Englewood company that handled the cutting of the tree and attaching it to the crane that carefully swung it to the road as it hung vertically.

He acknowledged the job was a bit unusual.

“We don’t want any breakage or damage to the tree,” he said, in explaining the reason for not felling it onto its side.

Still, there were a few small twigs left behind in the effort, one of which Meeker resident Jessie Dorner clutched.

He’s headed to see his grandchildren in Texas soon and believes the twig would make a special Christmas gift.

“I thought I’d take it to them,” he said.

The tree headed to Meeker for festivities Friday and today, before it tours the state with stops in places that will include Grand Junction. Then the tree goes east.

As Rio Blanco County Commissioner Shawn Bolton told the crowd, “There’s just a lot of history in this county and this is just another page of it.”


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