Lewis County is the perfect place to acquire Christmas tree farming friends.
Growing up, my yearly tree needs were always satisfied by some bartering — salmon for a tree, for example — and heading out with the chainsaw.
On Tuesday, I realized I’ve been spoiled my whole life.
National Forest Christmas tree harvest permits are now available at ranger stations for $5 or online at recreation.gov with an extra $2.50 service charge.
Compared to the $81 average cost of a Christmas tree in America, that price may seem a steal. It takes a drive to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to harvest a tree under 12 feet with a diameter of less than 6 inches. The tree must be at least 150 feet from any body of water including creeks, and should be harvested from an area with plenty of other trees so it doesn't leave empty forest space.
As it turns out, that $81 saves you an entire work day’s worth of time and a great deal of effort while supporting local tree farming. Yet, it may be keeping you from a rewarding adventure.
Come Tuesday morning, I packed a saw, rubber boots, rope, bungee cords and a lunchbox full of pumpkin muffins for another day at my often hilariously weird job. Chronicle photographer Jared Wenzelburger and I loaded up in his Jeep at 9 a.m. and headed out to East Lewis County. Our editor gave us one very clear instruction: “No hemlocks.”
Online at apps.fs.usda.gov/gp/#mainSection, a printable map denotes where harvest is allowed. Many of the forest service roads are marked “closed” on the map, but I learned from a kind ranger at the Gifford Pinchot Cowlitz Valley station the roads are not gated off, they just have limited access due to snow. The ranger then suggested we try Forest Road 23 out of Randle, which is the road to the Cispus Learning Center and therefore mostly paved.
There we headed, which is about a two-hour drive from The Chronicle. We crossed the Cowlitz River and drove along the Cispus for about 15 miles before our first stop.
“We had to prove that our tree skills were the best over any past reporter hunt. So we did gather tips from some of those past reporters and learned from our mistakes,” Jared said.
Quickly, we realized neither one of us actually knew the difference between evergreen trees in their early years.
“Is that a hemlock?” we continually asked.
But with no phone service to identify the conifers, we youngsters just determined we’d get the bushiest, most beautiful tree we could find and hope it was a fir.
The first stop had a few nice trees, but none good enough. As hail started coming down, we grabbed two large branches to mark an “X” on the road, deciding that if no other trees satisfied our need to succeed, we could come back and settle for these. We ventured on.
At the second stop, piles of deer bones and sweeping views of the snow-kissed hills greeted us.
“The tree vibes are good here,” Jared said, incorrectly.
Much like the cliche about the million fish in the sea, being presented with thousands of acres of trees doesn’t make it much easier to find “the one.”
The farther we drove, the harder it became. It was about 1 p.m. when we realized we were past 27 miles into the forest and were no longer among other tree-hunters.
After four stops, we regretfully decided to go back to our X and settle. As we rattled back down the road, Jared suddenly stopped.
We stepped out of the Jeep. He stood at the edge of the road and pointed.
Maybe 50 yards away and down a sharp cliff, there she was. Our tree.
“I don't think we could have picked a steeper spot. I went sliding down on multiple occasions. I think we had reached our vertical limit for the steepness of that trail,” Jared said.
After tumbling down the cliff, our excitement obscured the memory of Randle’s flood last weekend. Finally at the bottom, our boots sunk down into a bog. Covered in mud and soaked to the bone in hail and the dampness of the forest floor, with holes in my pants from trekking through berry vines and splinters a-plenty, we made it to the tree and began to saw away. After felling the mighty, bushy tree, it took us over half an hour to carry her up the drop-off.
Victoriously, we howled with pride at what was sure to be the most stunning Christmas tree in Chronicle history.
At first, we strapped it to the top of the Jeep, tree trunk aligned with vehicle trunk. Making our way back to civilization, Jared realized as soon as we got on the freeway, all the branches were going to snap off in the wind, so we turned it around trunk-to-windshield.
The only disappointment we suffered on the return journey was realizing Kelly’s Kountry Kafe in Ethel is closed on Tuesdays. Pumpkin muffins ended up being our most valuable resource.
Arriving back at The Chronicle building just before 4 p.m., we came to discover our tree was enormous. Being surrounded by giants all day had clouded our perception of tree size. So, it took another round with the saw to allow our green beauty to fit in the newsroom.
Overall, Jared called the trip the most successful Chronicle tree hunt he’d been on.
To those wishing to find their own wild tree, I would offer: let go of farm-like tree expectations, go on your day off, leave early, go before snow further restricts harvest areas, pack a snack and bring a tree-identification book.
Hemlocks, apparently, lose their needles long before Christmas. We still have no idea what kind of tree we harvested.
If You Go
There is a limit of five permits per household, with each permit only valid for a single use.
Permits also come with a map of areas that are closed to cutting and an information sheet with instructions for cutting trees in national forests. Permits must be on the tree-cutters person at the time of cutting.
This year, households with a fourth grade student can get a Christmas tree cutting permit for free. After obtaining an Every Kid Outdoors pass online, fourth graders simply need to show their valid paper voucher or Every Kid Outdoors pass at national forest offices for a free permit. Fourth graders and their parents should visit everykidoutdoors.gov for more details and to obtain their paper voucher.
To ensure a successful trip, make sure to plan ahead and prepare. Ranger district hours vary, so calling ahead to check current office hours is advised. Winter weather in the forest can change rapidly and most forest service roads are not maintained for winter driving.
A news release from the National Forest Service recommends bringing traction devices for cars, a shovel, extra food and water, winter clothing, blankets, a flashlight and a first aid kit. And of course, don’t forget the saw for cutting down the tree and a rope to secure it to the vehicle afterward.
Leave the woods well before dark and share trip itineraries with a friend.
For additional information and a video on successful tree harvesting, visit www.fs.usda.gov/goto/gp/treepermit. For more information on current road status and closures, visit www.fs.usda.gov/recmain/giffordpinchot/recreation#conditions.
Visitors can purchase Christmas tree permits at the following National Forest Service offices and vendor locations:
Mt. Adams Ranger District
2455 state Route 141, Trout Lake; 509-395-3400
Office Hours vary. Please call for the current schedule.
Walk-up window service for all sales or by phone/mail.
Cowlitz Valley Ranger District
10024 U.S. Highway 12, Randle; 360-497-1100
Office Hours vary. Call for current schedule.
Walk up window service for all sales.
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
42218 NE Yale Bridge Road, Amboy; 360-449-7800
Office hours vary. Call for current schedules.
All Forest Service offices will be closed Thanksgiving Day Nov. 25.
Vendor Locations (Call for hours of operation and information):
Amboy — Amboy Market 360-247-5421
Amboy — Chelatchie Prairie General Store 360-247-5529
Cougar — Lakeside Country Store 360-238-5202
Cougar — Cougar Store 360-238-5228
Cougar — Lone Fir Resort 360-238-5210
Kalama — Kalama Spirits and Tobacco 360-673-4991
Carson — Wind River Market 509-427-5565
Home Valley — Home Valley Store 509-427-4015
Trout Lake — Little Mountain (True Value) Hardware 509-395-2773
Stevenson — Main St. Convenience Store (open 24 hours) 509-427-5653
Ashford — Ashford General Store 360-569-2377
Ashford — Ashford Valley Grocery 360-569-2560
Elbe — Elbe Junction 360-524-7707
Elbe — Elbe Mall 360-569-2772
Packwood — Blanton’s Market 360-494-6101
Randle — Fischer’s Market 360-497-5355
Randle — Randle One Stop 360-497-3261
Kelso — Sportsman's Warehouse 360-423-2600
Vancouver — Sportsman's Warehouse 360-604-8000