It’s an annual event for many: getting a real-life Christmas tree. The timeless tradition can be a thrilling experience – cutting the tree, dragging it to your car, and loading it safely for a trip home to be decorated with care. You may find yourself near a national forest on your hunt for the perfect tree, but is it even legal to get a tree from one of those federally protected lands?
The short answer is yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The U.S. has 155 national forests with only a handful of states without one. In over two dozen of these federal lands, the U.S. Forest Service sells Christmas tree permits allowing citizens the chance to not only collect their own tree but support the health of the forest. It’s a tradition dating back as far as the 1930s.
“There are many benefits, specifically to say, ecology,” says Janelle Smith with the U.S. Forest Service. “Oftentimes, the smaller diameter trees are really perfect for cutting down and bringing into your home for the Christmas tree or decoration.”
Cutting down those smaller trees opens up the forest floor, promoting growth among other vegetation, Smith explains. Some of the participating forests will open specific areas for cutting while others are able to open up the entire forest with directions for people to follow to find a tree. Overall, each participating forest will be different, Smith says.
To cut down a tree in any of the participating forests, you’ll need a permit. Since 2020, permits have been available to purchase online at recreation.gov. There, you can find your nearest national forest and review its fees, the limit of trees you can get, if there are a limited number of permits, which area you’re allowed to find your tree in, and, in some forests, which trees you are allowed to cut down.
If you see the perfect tree outside of the designated cutting areas, or in a forest that isn’t participating in the program, you’ll want to stay away. As Smith explains, any time you enter a national forest or other national lands, you need permission or a permit to take anything with you as you leave.
“You can’t just go into any forest and cut a tree,” Smith says. “If you’re outside of a designated cutting area that would be outside of those rules that that forest would put in place and you could be fined by a law enforcement officer.”
As you plan your trip to get your Christmas tree – or trees, in some forests – Smith says it’s important to prepare for the weather and remember your own saw.
“I was surprised to hear from a couple of folks that people forgot to bring their saws to actually cut the tree,” she adds. “Dress for the occasion, know what the weather and the road conditions are like, really have a sense for where you’re going when you get out there. And just bring the tools and the right gear for the weather and the conditions.”
Smith also recommends reaching out to the office at the forest to discuss the areas and where you’ll be finding your tree. To find your nearest participating national forest and to apply for a permit, click here.