When the D.C. summer is in full swing – hot and humid – that's my signal that it's time to prepare for winter and select the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.
As Architect of the Capitol's (AOC) Director of Capitol Grounds and Arboretum, I have the honor, privilege and responsibility of selecting the perfect Christmas tree to grace the West Lawn of the United States Capitol for the holiday season. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) continued the tradition of finding candidate trees, this year from the Carson National Forest located in northern New Mexico.
The beautiful state of New Mexico had previous experience in supplying the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree. Most notably, in 1991, the Carson National Forest celebrated the USFS centennial by sending a live blue spruce (Picea pungens) with a 40-ton root ball. After the holidays, that tree was then successfully transplanted at the National Arboretum.
The Carson National Forest
My adventure started in June with a flight into Sante Fe and a breathtaking drive to Taos. This enabled me to get a sense for the dramatic changing landscape of New Mexico.
The expanses of the northern desert yielded endless views of fringed sagebrush (Artemisia frigida). The landscape transitioned to the higher elevations of the western plateau, where the piñon pine (Pinus edulis) was a dominant species. The mountains appeared in the background while the legendary Rio Grande River cut through the awe-inspiring scenery. I finally made my way to the Carson National Forest and was amazed at the natural beauty and serenity.
I was pleased to meet the interdisciplinary team of professionals from the USFS. The team presented an overview of the forest, which comprises more than 1.5 million acres and approximately 330 miles of trails for hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and horseback riding. Many trails and forest roads become cross-country ski and snowmobile trails in the winter.
Furthermore, I was educated about the history and diversity of the communities of the region. The mountains of New Mexico have provided abundantly for tribal communities, land grant heirs, acequia irrigators, livestock ranchers, recreation enthusiasts and those seeking solitude.
The Search Begins
The USFS selected 12 candidate trees for me to make my final selection from. It sounds simple to find a tree in a forest. But this is a special tree. Because it's a gift from New Mexico, it represents the pride and prestige of the people of New Mexico.
It also has to be perfect to fit the landscape of the Capitol. The tree is viewed from 360 degrees and cannot have a bad side. It will be viewed up close, so it must be full and lush. The branches have to be flexible enough to survive packing and transportation during a 2,000 mile trek. The branches also have to be strong enough to support the thousands of handmade ornaments that will adorn the tree.
The selection process proved to literally be breathtaking. Our selection trip started at an elevation of 6,000 feet and eventually rose to over 9,000 feet above sea level. Accustomed to the D.C. altitude, my body quickly felt the effects of the high altitude we were searching. I tried hard to keep up with the seasoned forest professionals. I may have been breathing hard, but I enjoyed every aspect of this amazing forest.
A Flawless Candiate
We inspected trees of various species in a number of different locations. None seemed to meet the criteria. A perfect tree from afar, often showed flaws upon closer inspection: a forked or crooked trunk, thin branches or a shaded side with no branches. Then, we happened upon the one!
A blue spruce (Picea pungens) growing in an open area appeared to be a flawless candidate. An open area will allow the tree to grow full and straight, as it does not have to compete with surrounding trees. We got closer, and it appears to be in good health. We inspect the branches, needles and trunk structure. It's perfect.
Standing at 60' tall and about 21' wide, it will be a smaller tree, but will still be in scale to the U.S. Capitol. I made my decision and selected this tree to make the trip across country and be on display on the West Lawn for Christmas.
Once the tree is on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, the AOC team goes hard to work. Our arborists set and secure the tree and lead a proud team in decorating the tree. Using thousands of ornaments made by the people of New Mexico, the tree will truly bring the culture of the state for all to see.
There are many people working behind the scenes to ensure the tree lighting ceremony on December 4 goes smoothly. I'm always delighted to watch the tree light up at the ceremony and hear the enthusiasm and enjoyment from the crowd. From the people of New Mexico to the USFS and the AOC, we all come together to make this tradition a success.