Woods Reader

The People’s Tree

The People’s Tree

Some trees shed their leaves to warm the earth through the cold winter months, some trees are home to eagles and playgrounds for squirrels, and some are sawed down and built into homes which keep families warm and dry for generations. Of all the trillions of trees in the nearly two-hundred million acres of National Forest in the United States, only one tree gets chosen to be THE PEOPLE’S TREE, the one tree chosen each year to adorn the west lawn of the United States Capitol in Washington DC. This tree which stands before the People’s House every holiday season, embellished in sparkling regalia and festive colors, is ultimately chosen by the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), but is initially picked out by the people of the state it is coming from. Every year since 1970 a National Forest has been chosen to provide a tree to adorn the Capitol’s west lawn for the people, by the people, of the people.

This years tree hails from Oregon in commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. There were 1,000 risk-taking men, women and children who made that first 2,170 mile journey overland from Independence Missouri to Oregon City Oregon in 1843. They drove their wagons loaded with dry goods, cooking utensils, furniture such as beds and dressers, and in some cases even china hutches and they led their livestock; oxen, cattle, mules, etc. all while facing the unknown in the hopes of breaking free from the harsh economic times brought on by the recession of 1837. Once the settlers arrived in The Dalles Oregon it was necessary to take a chance along the churning, roaring Columbia River on either rafts or to pay a ferry, or find another route over the formidable Cascade Mountain range which blocked their path overland. It is fortunate that the fur trappers had been in those parts for better than 50 years and, with the help of the native people, knew how to navigate The Dalles. This first group of settlers landed in Oregon City after approximately six months of hard living along the Trail.

Fifty years ago, the National Trails System Act was established. This is a nationally funded system of trails which are maintained simply for the use of The People much like the national roads which are maintained for driving, only these trails are for walking, biking, hiking, horseback riding, etc. The trails of the national system fall under one of four categories of use; Scenic, Recreation, Historic, and Connecting and Side Trails. National Scenic Trails are trails which are 100 miles long or more, continuous, are non-motorized for the most part and offer amazing recreational opportunities. Trails such as the Appalachian, Continental Divide, the Pacific Crest, and approximately 8 more fall under this category. The National Recreation Trails database boasts of 1,200 trails between less than a mile and up to 485 miles long ranging from nature trails to water trails and bikeways. The National Historic Trails include such trails as the Lewis and Clark trail, the Oregon trail, the Pony Express Trail, and so on. All of these trails utilize Connecting and Side Trails for supporting ease of access and maintenance and are provided to the public for recreation and enjoyment.

In celebration of this duo-anniversary, the theme for the 2018 Capitol Christmas Tree is “Find Your Trail,” and the tree itself came from the Sweet Home Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest, approximately 90 miles southeast of where that first wagon train stopped 175 years ago. This is the second tree to hail from Oregon, the first was culled from the Umpqua National Forest in 2002. Oregonians from all over the state were recruited to search the 200,000 acres of forest in the Sweet Home Ranger District for the best candidate to become The People’s Tree. In August an ornament hunt sponsored by the Willamette Valley Visitors Association took place. The group provided a map for locating one of the 200 glass ornaments which were placed along non-wilderness, easy access, trails and they gave away hundreds of prizes, one of which was a trip for two to see the tree lighting in Washington D.C. During the more weather-friendly months, the capitol tree website featured a “trail of the month,” to encourage people to “find your trail,” in the Sweet Home Ranger District in hopes of getting eyes on the tree. The people were instructed to send in GPS coordinates when they found a candidate and the suggestions were handed off to Jim Kaufmann, the Director of the Capitol Grounds and Arboretum at the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), the federal agency which is responsible for the operations and care of the U.S. Capitol buildings and grounds.

The governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, held a letter-writing contest for fourth graders who were asked to write what they enjoy most about Oregon’s outdoors. The contest attracted 1,200 letters and it was the poem by Brigette Harrington from Jackson Grade School in Hillsboro that won a trip for herself and a guardian to Washington D.C where she will join the Speaker of the House in flipping the switch to bring the roughly 10,000 lights on the People’s Tree to life.

From about a half dozen finalists, Mr. Kaufmann of the AOC made the final decision in August. What Mr. Kaufmann evaluated while choosing The People’s Tree were things such as: a conical shape, either a Douglas or a Noble Fir, the tree’s accessibility by crane and semi-truck, the tree had to be between 65 and 85 feet tall and very straight with uniform branching, be naturally thick and between 25-30 feet wide, and have a rich, green color. During the search, Mr. Kaufmann and his crew drove for hours up mountains and down the valley floor, finally deciding on a Noble Fir located about 7 miles down a logging road. This is the first year that a Noble Fir has been chosen as the People’s Tree.

Before cutting the tree, it was wrapped with slings and attached to cranes which supported it so that the tree would not fall and damage its branches or injure any of the 50-plus onlookers and celebrants observing the harvest. It was U.S. Forest Service Hand Crew Supervisor Jonah Gladney of Detroit, OR who had the honor of cutting the 80-foot Noble before the cranes hoisted it onto supports along the flatbed truck which would be its new home until it arrived in DC.

The trail to DC was driven in a huge truck along the Oregon Trail in-reverse. The route included over 25 important stops along the historic trail. Getting the approximately 90-plus foot flatbed truck out of the woods and onto the Oregon trail took some inventive trail-making of its own, after getting stuck in the mud while turning a tight bend on the forest road. Truly without a hitch, though, after that it was on its way to Sweet Home where forestry officials spent the better part of a week preparing the tree for its long journey as panels, some translucent, were added to the flatbed, the tree’s branches were carefully secured, a bladder holding 25-pounds of water, complete with its own heater, was secured to the trunk with wax to keep the tree watered, and the visible part of the tree was adorned with ornaments made by Oregonians.

In Albany, where the tree sat for most of the day on Saturday November 10, thousands of people came to see the tree. Viewing the top of the tree through the Plexiglas panels, people were heard“Ooh”-ing and “aww”-ing at the tiny red, green, and white lights, ornaments such as covered-wagon wheels, log cabins, and colorful paintings, and at the shiny silver star on the top. During the exhibit, the many forestry officials on hand were eager to answer questions, and to show off the tree. This was a day which coincided with Albany’s annual Veteran’s Day Parade, the largest such parade west of the Mississippi, so there were hundreds if not thousands of people on hand to view The People’s Tree and to sign the banners along the truck. As the tree began its journey, this was an excited scene repeated again and again as the truck made many more whistle stops on its way to DC.

The tree arrived in Oregon City, the end of the Oregon Trail and the beginning of this reverse-trail journey, on Tuesday Nov. 13. Because floating upstream along the Columbia was impractical for the long-hauling diesel, it is I-84 that the truck rode along to get to The Dalles, following right alongside the Columbia River that once ferried settlers into the Willamette Valley. From The Dalles they drove ever eastward with stops in Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, and of course, Independence Missouri before reaching the final destination of the lawn of the United States Capitol where its butt was “planted” in a deep hole made special just for it, and the people at the AOC completed decorating the tree.

All along the 3,000 mile journey, the People’s Tree was met with parades and festivities. Not only did the huge 70-foot tree (10 feet were trimmed away during travel preparations) arrive in Washington DC with ornaments handmade by Oregonians, but also 70 “companion trees,” which now adorn many government offices throughout DC. Oregonians made 10,000 ornaments to trim the trees with, 3,500 adorn the big fir on the west lawn and 6,500 were put on the smaller trees.

It is only natural to wonder what happens to the tree after the holidays are over. Perhaps some of it will be cut into logs and burned in someone’s hearth, or some of it milled into lumber to build a warm house, maybe some of it can be made into bird houses or squirrel feeders, or even bark chips to keep the earth warm during the winter. The People’s Tree is such a beautifully recyclable and versatile thing

SIDEBARS:

Funding

Obtaining, cutting, transporting, setting, and trimming The People’s Tree is a yearly event organized by volunteers and US Forestry workers, using donations from large corporate sponsors, small businesses and individuals. The People.

The Dalles

Dalles are defined as the rapids of a river running between the walls of a canyon or gorge. The city in Oregon, The Dalles, is located along the Columbia River in a narrowing of the gorge which creates many rapids. This area has a long history of trade between Native Amerians, going back 10,000 years and is considered to be one of the most important archaeological regions in North America.

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