If nothing else, 2020 has been a year of new experiences. It goes without saying that many of those have been due to the coronavirus pandemic — wearing face masks, holding get-togethers via Zoom and worrying about toilet paper hoarders were certainly new experiences to me.

So with the year drawing to an end and an unusual holiday season arriving, my boyfriend, Max, and I decided to join some friends in what was another first for me: cutting my own Christmas tree. I grew up in a firmly artificial-tree household. Each year, my sisters and I fanned out and decorated the same wiry, plastic green boughs and at the end of the season, the tree went back into its box in the garage.

With the reality that Max and I wouldn’t be spending Christmas with my parents in Mountain Home this year (nor would our friends be joining their extended families), we all decided instead to try a safe outing to the Boise National Forest to find ourselves some holiday cheer.

We certainly weren’t the only ones. As our three households caravanned up Idaho 21 in our respective vehicles on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, nearly every car we passed had an evergreen (or two!) strapped to the roof. Our friends Emily and Andrew reported counting nearly 150 trees as we drove up.

Tree cutting might be more popular this year, according to Boise National Forest spokeswoman Venetia Gempler. Only a week into its tree-cutting season, the Boise National Forest had sold 6,191 permits, which are required to cut your own Christmas tree. The season will remain open until Dec. 25. For the entirety of the 2019 tree-cutting season, the forest sold about 7,800 permits, Gempler said.

The surge could be due to COVID-19, which urged people to the outdoors in droves this year. Idaho’s booming population likely plays a role, too.

“It’s just like in the summertime,” Gempler said. “We had so many more people in the valley and so many more people in the forest. And now people want to start a new family tradition, to go up and cut their own Christmas tree.”

The spike in permit popularity could also be because the Forest Service had a first of its own this year: selling Christmas tree permits online.

“Last year the Forest Service did a pilot (of the online permitting) with a number of forests,” Gempler said. “This year because of COVID, they thought, ‘Here’s a great way to reduce the risk of exposure.’”

In years past, permits have been available for purchase at Boise National Forest offices, as well as through community vendors. Some vendors may still have permits, but the Boise National Forest’s website warns that offices may not be open for in-person purchases. The forest’s Interagency Visitor Center on Vinnell Way is not issuing permits at all this year.

Gempler said even when the threat of COVID-19 passes, she thinks online permit sales will continue. They accounted for two-thirds of all sales as of Dec. 3.

(From left to right) Andrew Turner, Emily Turner and Elizabeth Kidd follow a snowmobile trail to find Christmas trees near Whoop Um Up Park ‘N Ski in the Boise National Forest on Nov. 28, 2020. Nicole Blanchard [email protected]

Staying safe while cutting Christmas trees

Our trio of households arrived at Whoop Um Up Park ‘N Ski around 3 p.m. The parking lot was bustling, as were the pullouts we passed along the way.

We came prepared with face masks to wear when we couldn’t social distance from one another. Fortunately the expansive forest gave us plenty of room to keep a safe distance.

Elizabeth, who had masterminded the trip, led the way with her boyfriend and her dog, Watson, in tow. Our group followed a groomed snowmobile track for about a quarter of a mile before heading off the beaten path and into snow two feet deep. The stands and stands of towering Ponderosa pines gave way to huddles of smaller ones. We followed Forest Service suggestions and looked for trees in clusters, which would eventually start to compete with one another for resources as they grew larger (the Forest Service also requires trees be less than 12 feet tall and 300 feet or more from roadway or campsites).

Max and I quickly found the perfect tree for us — a 6-foot pine nestled in a snowbank. I dug out the snow around the base of the tree (shout out to Emily for thinking to pack a camp shovel) and Max set to work sawing through the inch-thick trunk with a borrowed bow saw.

As Gempler pointed out, Idaho’s public land pines aren’t the typical bushy, beautiful noble firs you can find at Christmas tree lots. These hardy trees tend to grow taller and thinner, their branches a bit sparse and certainly not as symmetrical as the fake tree I grew up assembling. But there’s no shortage of charming trees to choose from, and relocating one to your living room isn’t just festive, it’s beneficial to the forest, too.

Gempler said clustered trees end up competing for nutrients, then become stressed and more susceptible to disease and insect outbreaks, like the bark beetles that have damaged swaths of the Boise National Forest. Those infected trees contribute to the fuel load that can make Idaho forest fires burn out of control.

“It takes a while (to thin trees) using this method, but it could potentially help us a lot down the road,” Gempler said.

It didn’t take long for our friends to find and fell their own trees, and the six of us headed back to the parking lot. We packed up our trees — mine and Max’s fit perfectly in the back of my SUV with the seats folded down — just as the sun began to set and enjoyed a beautiful drive home with a view of cotton candy-colored clouds behind the mountains.

The outing was everything we needed — a safe way to spend time with loved ones, a jump-start to the holiday season and a fun, fresh experience to contrast with tumultuous ones this year has brought.

If you go

Get a permit from a vendor or online at Recreation.gov. It’s $10 per tree and comes with a map of where to cut down a keeper. Some places are off-limits for restoration projects, such as the burn scar from the 2016 Pioneer Fire or the Grimes Creek area.

Come prepared. A bow saw is easy to use and will easily cut through the trunk of trees up to 12 feet. A shovel is also handy, and don’t forget tie-downs for securing the tree to your vehicle.

Stay safe. While there’s no snow on the ground in the Treasure Valley, winter has come to the mountains. Make sure you have snacks and water in your vehicle in case you get stuck, and wear layers of warm clothing. A blanket or change of clothes is also a good idea. As with any activity in the outdoors, it’s smart to tell somewhere where you’re going and when to expect you back.

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Nicole Blanchard is the Idaho Statesman’s outdoors reporter. She grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University and frequents the trails around Boise as much as she can.

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