LIBBY — The search for the perfect Christmas tree is on in the Kootenai National Forest.
It’s not an easy task.
This particular tree will stand somewhere between 60 feet to 70 feet tall. It will need to be arrow-straight and perfectly proportioned with dense cover from every angle. No one knows yet whether it will be spruce or fir or pine.
For months now, Sandi Mason and everyone else working out in the woods on the Kootenai have been keeping their eyes skyward in hopes they’ll spot that bit of perfection in thickly covered mountainsides of 2.2 million acre national forest.
“It’s not as easy as you might think it would be on forest with so many trees,” said Mason, who is serving the Kootenai National Forest’s Capitol Christmas Tree project leader. “There are a lot of trees with tops that are split.”
So far, they have picked out eight good candidates and are still searching for more.
“Every time I’m out in the forest, I’m always looking,” Mason said.
All of those being considered so far have been spotted by Kootenai National Forest employees, but Mason encourages anyone in the public to let them know if they see a tree that might work.
“It does have to be on the national forest,” Mason said. “We’ve had calls from people saying they have a really nice blue spruce in their front yard. That won’t work.”
The deadline for finding that perfect tree that will eventually grace the front lawn of the national Capitol is quickly approaching.
On the week of July 16, the same Capitol architect who has made the final selection for 20 years will arrive with a small entourage to spend two or three days looking at this year’s candidates for what many call “The People’s Tree.”
The tradition of asking a national forest to provide the tree for the west front lawn of the U.S. Capitol dates back to 1970s.
It began after a live Douglas fir planted in 1963 succumbed to root damage after being severely damaged in a windstorm in 1967. For a couple of years, white pines were trucked in from Maryland before the decision was made to make the annual search for the perfect tree a national event. Since then, the trees have been selected from about 20 different states.
This is the second time that the Kootenai National Forest has been selected for the honor. The last time was in 1989.
Mason said the Kootenai Forest also provided a tree to Washington in 1958.
Finding that perfect tree is only one part of the challenge that comes with being selected, Mason said.
In addition to the large tree that lights up the Capitol lawn, the Kootenai Forest is also required to find another 25-five-foot beauty for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Whitten Room.
Beyond that, the forest also provides 60 to 70 small companion trees that provide holiday cheer in a variety of locations in Washington, D.C.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is helping in that endeavor, Mason said.
Montanans of all ages also have the opportunity to add their own special touch.
By the time August ends, the Kootenai Forest will need to have gathered 8,000 ornaments to decorate both the inside and outside trees in the nation’s capitol.
“The communities have already kicked into high gear,” Mason said. “We have about 4,500 ornaments so far.”
Local schools have played a large role in making ornaments this past winter. Mason said there will be numerous opportunities this summer for folks to show off their creative prowess at most of the large summer festivals in the area.
But you don’t have to live near the Kootenai Forest to take part in the celebration.
Mason said everyone in the state is invited to make an ornament to share something from their part of the state. Once they’re done, the ornaments can be mailed the Kootenai National Forest office in Libby at 31374 U.S. Highway 2, Libby, MT 59923-3022.
The ornaments that go on the outdoor tree have to be waterproof and measure 9 by 12 inches.
“They should also be real blingy,” Mason said. “They’ll need to be able to stand out. We have already received some really cool ones from all over the state. It’s amazing how creative people can be.”
This year’s theme for the Capitol Tree is “Beauty of the Big Sky.”
At this point, the hope is the tree will be cut on Nov. 9. After three or four days to package it properly, it will begin its route over the state’s Hi-Line that will include at least 17 stops on its ways across the country.
The Capitol Christmas Tree is traditionally lighted by the Speaker of the House on first Tuesday of December.
“It’s always a big event,” Mason said. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who are planning on going.”