The annual tradition of trimming and lighting a giant Christmas tree at the grounds of the U.S. Capitol began in 1964. That year, a 24-foot Douglas fir from Pennsylvania was planted on the West Front Lawn.
But the live tree didn’t last long.
That tree died in 1968 after suffering wind damage and root problems, according to an online history of the tradition by the Architect of the Capitol. Starting in 1970, the U.S. Forest Service has provided a cut tree, trucking them in from forests all over the country.
This year’s tree came from the Chugach (chew-gatch) National Forest in Alaska — the first to come from outside the lower 48 states. It spent three days on a ship before it was offloaded to a giant flatbed truck in Tacoma, Wash.
Next year, the national Christmas tree, sometimes called “The People’s Tree,” will come from Idaho. It’s the second time the Gem State will provide the tree. The first was in 2003, when the Boise National Forest provided a 65-foot Engelmann spruce from above Crouch, said Brian Harris, a spokesman for the Payette National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service queried offices in its Intermountain Region, which includes Utah, Wyoming, Nevada and Southern Idaho, about providing the 2016 tree. Officials at the Payette National Forest found out in May that they were selected, and they’ve already begun trying to identify a good tree.
The tree needs to be 60 to 85 feet tall and in a location that can be accessed by large cranes and a flatbed truck.
“We want to find a tree that represents the Payette National Forest, a natural species to the forest,” Harris said.
The Western white pine is Idaho’s state tree, but they grow farther north. Trees native to the Payette National Forest include Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine, Engelmann spruce and Grand fir.
“Ponderosa pine typically don’t make good Christmas trees because the branches are too far apart,” Harris said. “It’s probably going to be a Douglas fir or Engelmann spruce, but we’ve got to find it.”
Forest officials will actually identify six or eight possibilities. Then, officials with the Architect of the Capitol’s office will travel out to Idaho in the summer to make the final selection.
Planning for the Capitol Christmas Tree project begins more than a year out because it involves much more than finding and transporting a nice tree. The Payette Forest will also provide 70 other smaller trees for offices in the District of Columbia, as well as 7,000 to 8,000 handmade oranments.
Harris said Forest Service officials hope people and businesses around the state participate in the $600,000 project, which has as its theme “An Idaho Mountain Gem.” They’ll accept donations through a Colorado-based nonprofit, Choose Outdoors, which has partnered with the Forest Service for the past five years.
“It’s not just a gift from the Payette National Forest, it’s a gift from Idaho,” he said. “We really want the public to jump in and help us with the ornaments.”
Harris said they’ll kick off promotions at the McCall Winter Carnival with a special snow sculpture and float, as well as an ornament-making tent.
“It will be a fun kid event for people to do while they’re in McCall,” he said.
The tree will do an eight- to 10-day tour of the state for community celebrations before it’s taken east. It’ll be visible through a window in the back portion of the 90-foot flatbed truck.
The truck will make more promotional stops during its nine- or 10-day trip to Washington, D.C. For 2016, the planned route is farther south than others in the past few years, touching on Utah, Colorado, Kansas, and possibly Kentucky and Tennessee.
Call: Brian Harris, 208-634-0700
Mail: Payette National Forest, Capitol Christmas Tree, 500 N. Mission St., McCall, ID 83638