By Rick Smeriglio for SCN —
Getting the US Capitol Christmas Tree from the Snow River floodplain to the west lawn of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. costs the taxpayers very little. About 52 sponsors nationally, including some locally, have once again donated the wherewithal to transport an evergreen behemoth cross-country in one piece with celebratory stops along the way. The story starts with a forester and culminates in a national tradition.
Months ago, when asked if she wanted the assignment of finding the perfect tree to meet demanding specifications, USDA Forest Service forester Amanda (Mandy) Villwock said that she felt daunted at first, but thought that she might have fun trying. According to Villwock, she needed to find a tree at least 70 feet tall, easily accessed on National Forest land, that had a beautiful conical shape.
The requirement for easy access caused problems. Villwock said that most of the roaded land on the Seward Ranger District has devolved to state of Alaska ownership. After finding some trees not on federal land, she eventually found several candidate trees, including a Lutz spruce that reached almost 78 feet tall, swelled to a trunk diameter of almost 23 inches and had grown quite rapidly in an area subject to the notorious jökulhlaups that flood Snow River valley every few years. Villwock said that periodic flooding made for rapid growth of the tree on good soil.
Villwock said, “This tree was actually the first real candidate that I found in my three-week search. I found six trees in total … During Ted Bechtel’s [current Architect of the Capitol] trip to select the tree, he didn’t crack a smile or hint that any of the other trees were going to get picked. When we walked up to the tree … he smiled and nodded. I had no idea I was so nervous. It was a lot of pressure and I could finally breathe easy!”
The moving of a big tree with its branches intact, from the woods to its ultimate destination, requires logistical muscle. Alaska has that in spades: private enterprise enters here. Granite Construction Company donated equipment and labor to build the 150-yard-long road from Seward Highway at mile 15.5 to the tree itself. Alaska Crane donated use of a crane for lifting the tree off its stump. Hale Trailer donated a trailer and Kenworth Truck Company donated use of a new tractor to pull that trailer. Lynden Transport donated the driver for the whole rig. Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) Maritime Alaska will transport the tree and trailer on one of its ships from Anchorage to Seattle. Shell Oil donated truck fuel and Alaska Airlines donated plane tickets. John Schank, named 2014 Alaska driver of the year by the Alaska Trucking Association, will drive the tree to Washington, D.C. Paul Grimaldi, President of Lynden Transport said that Schank has driven commercially for over 40 years and has 5 million safe driving miles to his credit.
Grimaldi said, “When Bruce Ward [organizer of the project] contacted us over a year ago [asking] if we wanted to participate, I said absolutely. I said that we have got just the right guy for him in John Schank … I thought that it would be a great opportunity to recognize his accomplishments and at the same time do something that is unique for the country in getting the Christmas tree to D.C. We jumped at the opportunity.”
Bruce Ward serves as president of Choose Outdoors, the non-profit group that organizes the 2015 effort to procure the tree. His organization has done the same thrice before. Ward said that as of mid October, Choose Outdoors has raised about half a million dollars in private-sector support for the transporting tree and celebrating it along the way. He reckons that corporate sponsors will defray about 90 percent of the total expense. Ward mentioned that Major Marine Tours, Alaska Railroad Corporation, Kenaitze Indian Tribe and Alaska SeaLife Center had supported the effort in Seward. He also said the protective crate for the tree would have banners on it for people to sign.
Ward said, “We were looking for an initiative like the Capitol Christmas Tree, as a way to sort of unify all of us who love the great outdoors … our public lands, especially our National Forests …This is a great way to tell that story … There is no Republican or Democrat side to this. This is something that brings everyone together.”
Mona Spargo, spokesperson for Chugach National Forest, wrote in mid October that details of the itinerary remained incomplete. Thus far, the tree has stops scheduled in Seward, Moose Pass, Anchorage, Seattle, Missoula, Spokane, Bozeman, Rapid City, La Vista, Nebraska, South Bend, and finally, Chillicothe, Ohio. From there, Jon Schank will deliver the special tree from the Chugach National Forest in Alaska, to Joint Base Andrews in Washington, D.C. Last year’s tree came from the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota.
US Air Force personnel will unwrap the tree and deliver it to the west lawn of the US Capitol where a crane will erect it on November 20. The tree will come alive with light on December 3. This large, outdoor tree, distinct from the several indoor trees at the White House, became an established American tradition in 1963.
US Capitol Christmas Tree held aloft by two cranes while crew prepares cradle on trailer. Photo by R. Smeriglio