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By Lindsey Bright
Make the hot cocoa. Put it in a thermos. Have someone bring fresh-baked, preferably still warm, chocolate chip cookies. Then, load up in a truck and head out into the San Juan National Forest to find the perfect Christmas tree.
“It’s something nice to make a day out of,” said Gretchen Fitzgerald, forester with the Columbine District.
One permit for a Christmas tree only costs $8. Permits for cutting Christmas trees can be obtained any time between 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Pagosa Ranger District office, 180 Pagosa St.
Also, free permits to collect three bushels of pine cones can be obtained from the office.
One of the most popular areas to chop down a Christmas tree in the Pagosa District is toward the end of Fawn Gulch Road, east of Pagosa Springs. Not only is Fawn Gulch a convenient short drive from town, but the road is nicely maintained and along the sides, toward the end, there are areas thick with a variety of white firs, perfect for whatever size Christmas tree is needed.
“The best place to cut trees is out from under the ponderosa pines,” Fitzgerald said. This benefits the forest by helping to thin ladder fuels, thereby preventing a potential large-scale fire in the future.
In the area around the East Fork campground, a noticeable difference can be seen between the area where volunteers from Community United Methodist Church have cut boughs to make Christmas wreaths at the Russ Hill Bazaar and an uncut area nearby. The area where the boughs have been cut is now an open, parklike space, an obvious contrast from the adjacent, overcrowded forest. Not only does a denser forest with an abundance of ladder fuels create potential for a crown fire, it also increases disease and insect susceptibility by reducing the amount of nutrition available to the trees.
“People can feel good about helping the forest; they don’t have to feel bad for cutting a tree,” Fitzgerald said.
Whether going into the forest to chop down your Christmas tree or to cut boughs for wreaths, the first step is to stop by the Forest Service office and pick up a permit. Pine cone collecting and bough cutting both involve free permits.
Second, find the tree that is right for you: white fire, subalpine fir or spruce. Do not cut ponderosa pine or Douglas fir. Trees within 100 feet of county roads, federal or state highways, and within 100 feet of developed campgrounds cannot be cut.
The permit allows for a tree up to 20 feet tall. It is illegal to cut only the top of a tree. The Forest Service asks all people cutting their own Christmas tree to not disfigure the trees with improper cutting. The tree should be cut as close to the ground as possible, leaving no more than a six-inch stump. No branches should be left on the stump.
After cutting your perfect Christmas tree, make sure to attach the permit to the trunk so it is visible on the drive home.
In the Pagosa Springs area, the only federal lands that are off limits are the Chimney Rock National Monument, the Piedra Management Area and the Williams Creek Research Natural Area.