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Montana Provides U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree

November 16, 2008

‘Tis The Season

On a dark night this month, in the glow of the State Capitol, dozens of Montanans lined up to stick their noses through a hole in a clear plexiglass panel for a whiff of evergreen from the giant fir tree that is scheduled to arrive in Washington this week as Montana’s gift to the nation.

“That’s the smell of Christmas,” said Nan Christiansen, a United States Forest Service spokeswoman, wearing a Santa hat. The stop in Helena was the last of several that day, Nov. 8, including the ranching towns of Choteau and Augusta.

On a circuitous 10-day journey through 19 Montana towns, the 78-foot-tree lying on its side drew big crowds. The trip will continue through North Dakota and to Chicago, among other places, en route to its final destination on Friday on the west lawn of the United States Capitol.

“At first, I didn’t understand how proud Montanans are of this tree,” said Dave Bull, superintendent of the Bitterroot National Forest, where the tree was cut. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Cutting down a tree might seem a simple matter, but felling the Capitol Christmas Tree — not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree at the White House — hauling it across the country and putting it into position involves a process so detailed it might be more accurate to call it a ritual.

Each year since 1970, a tree has been plucked from a national or state forest. Last year’s was from Vermont. Next year’s will be from Arizona.

Most of the cost — $400,000 so far this year — is financed by private donations, like those from the local businesses and citizens of Hamilton, who were thrilled that they were the closest Montana town to this year’s tree.

The selection process began two years ago, when the United States Forest Service identified several trees in Montana that met its criteria, including height, breadth and type.

After traveling to Montana to look at the candidates, the superintendent of the Capitol grounds, Ted Bechtol, made his selection. “You can’t stick it next to the fireplace or the sofa if it’s bare on one side,” he said. “It has got to look good from 360 degrees.”

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