Nine-year-old Henry Spellman pulled his family’s freshly cut Christmas tree through the snow on an orange toboggan for about 40 yards before turning to his dad, Mark.
“Wanna do it?” he asked.
Mark Spellman hauled it for about the same distance before turning to his wife, Rachel.
“Your turn,” he said.
She took over for the home stretch with Henry’s help and their dog, Seamus, wandering along until Mark tossed the 10-foot tree into their truck bed.
While many Christmas get-togethers and family traditions have been put on hold this year, others, like cutting down trees, are still alive and well, and nearby national forests offer opportunities for families to make these positive memories.
The Spellmans usually get together with several families to cut down trees and sled. They opted for a smaller outing this year but will still have dinner, decorate the tree and watch a Christmas movie together.
“We just wanted to keep it a little closer to home,” Mark Spellman said. “I think it’s mostly just about getting out with Henry and Seamus.”
The Spellmans weren’t all that picky about their tree. They found it not too far off the road near Ditch Creek and Shadow Mountain in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
“I think it’ll be good — it’ll hold the ornaments,” Spellman said. “We try and get a tree that’s kind of crowded with other ones to help them grow, too.”
While families are sometimes hesitant to cut down trees, it is good for the forest when done right.
“One of the goals of forest management is to allow the older trees to grow and thrive, and part of that is removing understory,” said Evan Guzik, spokesperson for the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Cutting down trees also reduces ladder fuels, or vegetation of intermediate height that would help a fire spread from the ground to the forest crown.
Guzik discourages cutting whitebark pines and limber pines, which are identifiable by their bundles of five needles. He also said that spruce trees can make for painful decorating because of their sharp needles, so Douglas firs or subalpine firs are the best.
Permits for a tree of up to 20 feet tall, the stump of which must be cut to 8 inches or less, can be purchased for $15 at Recreation.gov/tree-permits. For fourth graders like Henry, a free permit is available through the Every Kid in a Park program, encouraging kids to pick out their own tree.
“The key is just getting creative,” Guzik said. “If you go right along the road, those are the spots everyone’s going to go to, whereas if you throw on a pair of skis or snowshoes and go a few hundred yards farther, there’s obviously a better chance you’ll go where someone hasn’t been.”
Guzik says Hoback Canyon, Phillips Ridge, Buffalo Valley Road and Togwotee Pass are popular locations. A map of allowed areas and more information is available at FS.USDA.gov/main/btnf/passes-permits.
Similar permits are available in neighboring forests, each with different costs and restrictions.
Rebecca Ritz and her 14-year-old son, Grayson, are getting their family’s first real tree from the Shoshone National Forest near their place in Dubois. They live in Las Vegas for most of the year, but with Grayson’s classes online they’re using the opportunity to make this holiday “a Griswold-worthy Christmas.”
“With COVID and everything, it just kind of became our mission to make this year as special as possible for him since he’s missing out on so much,” Ritz said.
Living in the desert, Ritz hasn’t had a real tree since her childhood, but the family is ready to start this new tradition and leave fake trees behind.
“There’s just a different beauty to it,” she said. “You just don’t know it until you go out there and pick that tree that’s so imperfectly perfect.”
After cutting their tree the family will have hot chocolate and warm soup and take an inaugural skate on their homemade ice rink.
For those not up to cutting their own tree, many local stores sell precut trees. Guzik said that those feeling “tree cutter’s guilt” could also consider donating to programs that plant trees in areas that need them but that cutting a real tree is something you can’t do just anywhere.
“Just being able to go out and have that engagement with the forest and have the forest be part of the memories that you create around the holiday season,” he said, “I think that’s just a really special opportunity.”
Guzik also reminds people to take extra precautions, not only when driving in winter conditions but also by bringing extra food and gear and letting someone else know where they will be.