Careful cutting sends Colorado conifer on trip to Washington (copy)

A local law enforcement officer takes a picture in November 2012 of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree as it's readied for loading onto a truck following its removal from the national forest east of Meeker. That was the last time the national Christmas tree was selected from Colorado's Western Slope.

If picking out the right Christmas tree is the hardest of the many jobs involved leading up to the holidays, then the toughest work is over when it comes to this year’s U.S. Capitol Building Christmas tree.

Now the stately giant needs merely to be gently cut down so as not to harm its branches, trucked from the Grand Mesa, Gunnison and Uncompahgre National Forest all the way to Washington, D.C., and decorated with countless, still-to-be-made handmade ornaments and erected at its place of honor on the West Lawn of the Capitol Building.

The tree has been selected and the Capitol architect will announce the selection in a few days, Jennifer Eberlien, acting regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, said Monday in a conference call that included Gov. Jared Polis.

The upcoming announcement may include information on the general location of the tree, but a more specific location is expected to be withheld until fall when the tree is to be removed, as a security measure.

Eberlien, Polis and others on Monday enthused about the Capitol tree project and the chance to “kick off the magic of Christmas in July,” as Eberlien put it. The project and its planning also are serving as a welcome diversion in a year of pandemic, even as COVID-19 factors are now being considered in that plan.

For example, one undertaking involves getting 10,000 ornaments made by Coloradans to decorate the tree and some 70 other trees also being sent to Washington to decorate the halls of the Capitol building and other government buildings.

Cathy Ritter, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, said the state entity Colorado Creative Industries is working with arts organizations on the ornament project. Possible projects include having students who are learning at home because of the pandemic use items commonly found around homes to make ornaments, and getting people living in senior communities involved in ornament-making because of a current high demand in such facilities for creative projects.

The pandemic also is complicating some of the public-event planning related to the tree. Officials hope to cut down the tree in a public event, but whether that can occur will be contingent on a COVID-19 health risk assessment of that event, forest spokesperson Kim Phillips said.

The plan also is to have the tree go on a public tour on its way through Colorado and on to Washington. Phillips said that tour is still planned, but added, “we don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like.”

In early December, a tree lighting ceremony is planned, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi expected to preside and members of Colorado’s congressional delegation also expected to participate.

Polis, who fondly recalled viewing the Capitol Christmas tree during his time in Congress, noted that travel restrictions may somewhat limit how many people see this year’s tree at the Capitol building.

But he said some visitors still will get to see it, along with Washington, D.C., residents who “deserve to see a little piece of Colorado.”

For Ritter, the Forest Service and the state, the tree project is an opportunity to highlight Colorado’s public lands and outdoors, which have gained increased appreciation this year as people have sought outdoor locales and activities in droves as an antidote to COVID-19 and some of its social-distancing consequences.

“We very much appreciate the opportunity to share our nature with the nation,” Ritter said.

The national forest area sprawls across some 3 million acres. Locally, both Grand Mesa and the Uncompahgre Plateau are potential locations for the chosen tree. Grand Mesa’s good road access would be helpful because it would allow access by cranes needed to carefully lower the tree onto a truck.

The tree is expected to be 65 to 80 feet high. Polis said Monday that it likely will be an Engelmann spruce.

“Colorado is proud to contribute part of our natural beauty to the United States Capitol in Washington,” he said.

The nonprofit Choose Outdoors is a primary partner in the project. Jodi Massey with Choose Outdoors said a number of sponsors have been lined up.

Colorado-based Apex Transportation has been selected as the carrier for the tree, with Kenworth Truck Co. providing the cab and Hale Trailer providing the trailer.

TravelCenters of America is providing support when it comes to fuel for the trip.

“A project of this magnitude simply cannot happen without the generosity of sponsors and partners and it highlights the increasingly important role that public-private partnerships play in building continued support for our public lands,” Massey said.

Officials first announced last year that GMUG would have the honor of providing this year’s Capitol tree, with the tree to be selected from a list of candidates that the Capitol architect would visit.

The Capitol tree program dates to 1964, and Colorado previously has provided three of the Capitol trees, most recently in 2012, when a tree was selected from the White River National Forest east of Meeker.

More information on the tree project, and how to participate through means such as creating an ornament or being a sponsor, may be found at www.uscapitolchristmastree.com.

“Christmas is still five months away and there’s plenty of time to get involved,” Massey said.

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