Old tradition gains new popularity as more buy permits to cut their own Christmas trees

Dec 23, 2021, 10:15 PM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 10:00 pm

SPANISH FORK, Utah – For Ashley Christiansen’s family of six, tradition means trekking into the mountains in search of the perfect pine.

When she was growing up in Emery County, her father insisted they venture into the nearby Manti-La Sal National Forest each November to harvest a towering tree, she said. Now, Christiansen keeps to the holiday ritual with her own children.

“There’s just something about a real tree that you got in the mountains with your family,” she said.

Ashley Christiansen and her children, Carter, Kate, Tanner, and Alli, search for a Christmas tree in the Manti-La Sal National Forest near Spanish Fork.

Their longtime tradition is also a growing trend. More Utahns and others across the country are buying permits to head into the woods in search of Christmas trees, according to data provided by federal land managers.

The U.S. Forest Service handed out nearly 319,000 permits allowing people to legally chop down their own trees in 2020, about a 20 percent increase from a year earlier.

It was the first time the paperwork was widely available online, and the virtual option proved popular: The bulk of the $15 permits were issued via the web. A program granting fourth graders a free evergreen contributed a tiny share.

The trend is also taking root on the Bureau of Land Management’s Utah terrain, dotted with pinyon pines, junipers and firs. The federal agency recorded an uptick after it opened up most of its 3-million acre Salt Lake field office for tree harvesting this year.

The move made Utah the no. 1. destination in the BLM’s nine-state program in 2021, with 5,735 trees cut by early December. The Beehive State far outpaced neighboring Colorado, which followed with about 1,600. Many bought those permits online.

On a Saturday earlier this month, the Christiansens piled in the family truck with their four children, ages 7-14. They made their way up Spanish Fork Canyon toward Skyline Drive, with the paperwork in tow.

The Christiansen family on a December 2021 outing to find a Christmas tree.

They stopped to hop over logs, duck under branches and eventually cast votes on their favorite candidates in a different corner of the same national forest where Ashley Christiansen and her siblings hunted for trees as children.

Kate Christiansen, 7, cried “Timber!” as her brother Tanner, 12, helped saw.

Their father John Christiansen, who married into the tradition, carried out his duties, chopping and hauling, with a smile.

“We should create a dad’s victim fund for this stuff,” he quipped.

As she surveyed the hillside, Ashley Christiansen thought about her father, Kent McKell.

For decades, McKell led the family mission up steep, snowy hills. He eventually retired from the role because of back problems, collateral from a long career as a dentist.

Kent McKell talks about his family’s longstanding tradition of chopping down their own tree.

As his grandchildren piled in the family truck a few weeks ago, McKell, 73, was at home in Spanish Fork, waiting for the them to pull up. When they arrived, he marveled at a second tree they had selected just for him.

“I know if you consider the gas that you use to get up in the mountains and all that, it’s probably, maybe more expensive to actually cut your own tree,” McKell said, his eyes glassy. “But it’s just fun and exciting, exhilarating for me to think of those memories.”

Kate, Carter and Tanner Christiansen take in the Christmas tree they chose for their grandparents.

In Farmington, another family is at work making new memories.

Sydney and Jake Christensen forged a bond camping, fishing and hiking together. Now they’re hoping to foster an appreciation for the outdoors in their son, Rhett.

But standing in line for hours to get a permit with a three-month-old baby wasn’t an option, they said. The online system allowed the Farmington couple to do the paperwork with just a few clicks.

They didn’t waste any time in the Uinta mountains earlier this month.

“This year was kind of like, ‘We have a little baby — he’s getting tired — this one looks nice!’” Sydney Christensen said of the slim pine adorned with ornaments in their living room.

Jake Christensen, Rhett Christensen, and Sydney Christensen look at ornaments on their Christmas tree at their home in Farmington.

Each year, federal land managers with the Forest Service and BLM decide where hikers and snowmobilers can saw away, and whether some species are off-limits. Ecology helps decide the boundaries. Dense areas need to be thinned out in order to help make a forest healthier, opening up forage for wildlife and allowing younger trees to grow big, the agencies said.

The BLM revenue — $51,342 this year, as of Dec. 6 — goes mainly toward projects to restore plants, wildlife habitats and waterways affected by humans, and sometimes for road maintenance, the BLM said.

The Forest Service didn’t have 2021 numbers available, but uses the money in a similar way. The revenue goes back into its Christmas tree program, helping to cover cost of marking areas approved for cutting, publishing maps, and keeping roads in good shape, among other things.

David Whittekiend, supervisor for the Uinta Wasatch Cache National Forest, said his area placed 13,000 permits for sale this season, with 7,500 available online and the remainder over the counter.

The paperwork is important. Without it, a tree-cutter on federal land may be subject to up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. State land is also off limits.

The Heber-Kamas ranger district, a short drive for most people along the Wasatch Front, and long the state’s most popular destination, sold out as usual. But each permit available in the Spanish Fork and Logan ranger districts was snapped up, too.

He and his colleagues are considering making more available next year.

“We have a lot of trees out here,” Whittekiend said. “And I think we can probably offer more Christmas trees.”

Information about permits is available on the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management  websites. 

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.  

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Old tradition gains new popularity as more buy permits to cut their own Christmas trees