KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — A piece of Oregon will light up Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., during the holidays when, for only the second time ever, the Capitol Christmas Tree will be from Oregon.
The 80-foot tall tree from the Sweet Home Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest will be cut in early November and prepared for a 3,000-mile cross country journey to the Capitol’s West Lawn, where lighting ceremonies will be held in early December. Upwards of 70 smaller companion trees will also be sent from the Willamette for government buildings and public spaces in Washington, D.C. Oregonians have already created nearly 2,000 large, weatherproof handmade ornaments for the Capitol Christmas Tree and 10,000 smaller handmade ornaments for the companion trees.
The theme for the 2018 Capitol Christmas Tree is “Find Your Trail!” in recognition of two 2018 anniversaries: the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act and the 175th commemoration of the Oregon Trail. In November, the Capitol Christmas Tree will travel eastward from Oregon on the reverse path of the Oregon Trail. The schedule and special events will be announced in late October.
“This is the ‘People’s Tree,’” says Nikki Swenson, the Sweet Home District Ranger. Her persistent lobbying is credited with having a tree from her ranger district selected. Swenson said urged Jim Pena, who earlier this year retired as the Region 6 regional forester, which includes Oregon and Washington, to select Sweet Home because of what it would mean to the community. The impromptu meetings including one in a stairwell and another in an elevator.
“Every time I saw him I’d have new reasons,” Swenson said of her successful pleas, noting he once cautioned her, “Be careful of what you wish for.”
She’s learned Pena wasn’t exaggerating.
“There are so many small details. It’s harder than you think it would be,” Swenson noted, from selecting a tree, planning its cutting, determining its route when it’s trucked to Washington, D.C., scheduling events along the way, caring for the tree after it’s cut, and finding ways to encourage community involvement, which she said has been the easiest task.
“The Sweet Home community is really trying hard to remake itself,” she said of the small town of about 9,000 people that has staggered economically since the 1980s when sawmills closed and logging operations lessened. Located in Linn County along the South Santiam River, the town now focuses on recreation opportunities and is sometimes called, “The Gateway to the Santiam Playground.”
The selected tree is unique. For the first time ever, the 80-foot tall Capitol Christmas Tree is a noble fir.
After a lengthy selection process, which included suggestions from the public, a Willamette “tree team,” which included foresters and a botanist, the field of candidate trees was narrowed to five, The final decision was made during an August visit by Jim Kaufmann, Director of the Capitol Grounds and Arboretum at the Architect of the Capitol, the federal agency responsible for the operations and care of the Capitol and grounds. The location of the selected tree is being kept secret for security reasons until it is cut in early November.
Swenson said Kaufmann evaluated each tree for a variety of desired characteristics, including being 65 to 85 feet tall, having a straight stem, uniform branching, a perfectly conical shape, natural density and rich green color. The tree candidates included both Douglas and Noble firs, the two most iconic conifer species in both the Willamette and Oregon. Other factors included the tree’s accessibility by crane and semi-truck when it’s cut.\
“It really was like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Joanie Schmidgall, who’s handling publicity for the Willamette.
“It ended up being a great tree,” Swanson said.
With the tree selection process completed, Swenson said the Willamette team is working with sponsors and Sweet Home area people on an array of details. The tentative tree-cutting date is Nov. 2 with a day-long series of celebrations in Sweet Home planned for Nov. 9. Other celebrations are planned at communities with Willamette ranger district offices and other Oregon cities, including Bend, Albany and Oregon City, along with “whistle-stops” in communities along the route east.