Finding the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree 

Superintendent of U.S. Capitol grounds visits Bridger-Teton to select ‘the people’s tree’

By MARGARET MATRAY | Star-Tribune staff writer | July 11, 2010

The second tree of the day was a beauty — 70 to 80 feet tall, a luscious green, not a bare spot on it. A full-bodied Engelmann spruce.

When Ted Bechtol saw it, the superintendent of U.S. Capitol grounds stepped back, snapped a photograph.

“It’s really fat,” he said. “This is such a beefy tree.”

To our untrained eyes, this one would appear perfect. But Bechtol, an expert in matters coniferous, thought otherwise.

The second tree would not do. Too robust. He ruled it out.

Every year since 1970, the U.S. Forest Service has provided a Christmas tree to adorn the west front lawn of the U.S. Capitol. This year, for the first time, it’s Wyoming’s turn.

So here Bechtol was, searching the Bridger-Teton National Forest Thursday and Friday, selecting The Tree from 10 nominees. With him were the Capitol Christmas tree national manager, the 2010 tree coordinator, the Georgia trucker who will drive the tree cross country, a Bridger-Teton natural resources manager, a retired district ranger and several others.

Where, specifically, they looked for trees, you’re not privy to know.

Locations are secret. Those involved in the project can’t even divulge which towns they visited, for fear someone would find the tree and draw unwanted attention to it, or worse. But consider this: It took two days to examine 10 trees in a 3.4 million-acre forest that spans three counties. They spent most of the first day driving, with only enough time to see three nominees.

All to find a tree perfect enough to cut down in November, drive 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C., cement into a 5-foot hole on the Capitol lawn, decorate with 5,000 ornaments and 10,000 LED lights, and then, when Christmas is over, chip into mulch.

Sizing up the nominees

When the team reached its next tree, two people pushed branches aside and crawled into the tree’s underbelly, wrapping a tape measure around the trunk.

“This has got great foliage,” Bechtol said.

The natural resources manager stood away from the tree and held out a clinometer to measure its height. Mary Cernicek, 2010 U.S. Capitol Christmas tree coordinator and Bridger-Teton National Forest spokeswoman, tossed pine cones and small branch pieces into a plastic bag to identify the tree’s species.

Residents, visitors and Forest Service employees nominated 23 trees for consideration, and the Christmas tree team narrowed it down to the best 10. Still, it was a lot for Bechtol to see in two days, and the team worked quickly, spending no more than 10 minutes at each tree.

There is no Capitol Christmas tree handbook. The only real rule is that the tree must be at least 55 feet tall (so people can see it from far away) and no larger than 65 feet when it’s finally placed on the Capitol lawn (Bechtol’s crew doesn’t have a crane taller than that).

Bechtol wants a tree that’s healthy and conical in shape, with a trunk that has grown straight. The tree must be near flawless, since it will be viewed from all sides.

On the second day, Bechtol searched what Cernicek has dubbed “Christmas tree alley,” an area with a large number of potential winners. He eliminated one tree (too many bald spots), then another (at 98 feet, too tall).

He saw all four nominees in this spot and was soon off in the trees, looking at other potentials.

The superintendent

Someone called out the tree’s diameter at breast height, and Bechtol wrote that down.

In a small notebook he also noted height, width of branches, species and a few key details like “dense foliage.” Then he gave the tree a rating out of ten.

This is Bechtol’s fifth time selecting the Capitol Christmas tree. His first was a 65-foot Pacific silver fir from Olympic National Forest in Washington. He keeps a pen and ink drawing of that tree hanging in his office.

Bechtol, a horticulturist who has served as the superintendent of Capitol grounds since 2007, manages the fountains, gardens and historical landscape on 275 acres of the Capitol complex. This includes keeping track of 30 gardeners, five or six arborists, mechanics and 4,200 trees. Before that, he worked as horticulturist for a historic site, superintendent of gardens and grounds at a museum and library and horticultural manager at a retirement home for veterans.

At home in Maryland, the Bechtols cut down their own Christmas trees from a local tree farm. Bechtol, his wife and two daughters always select two — one each for the family and living rooms.

In a Capitol Christmas tree — and a Christmas tree in general — Bechtol likes tall and slender. His wife, also a horticulturist, prefers short and wide.

In his own home, the man who selects the nation’s tree gets overruled.

And the winner is …

At the end of the day, Bechtol didn’t need to get out of the car to make a decision on the last tree.

It has a “funny side,” he explained.

When he arrived at the forest supervisor’s office in Jackson, he had 30 minutes to look over his notes before announcing his selection in a press conference.

When time was up and the room filled, Cernicek stepped to the podium and explained how they’ll make sure no harm comes to what’s called “the people’s tree” in the four month until it’s cut, how Wyoming will also provide 75 companion trees for federal buildings and 6,000 ornaments. The tree will come from a non-wilderness area and be easily accessible, she said, so as not to damage the forest when the tree is cut down and an 81-foot flatbed retrieves it.

She introduced Bechtol, who explained he saw many great trees, but only one could be The Tree.

The one he selected looks like it belongs on an estate in Rhode Island, he said. He wrote “10” in his notebook for a rating, something he rarely does.

The tree Bechtol chose is a lovely 67-foot Engelmann spruce near Jackson.

Where it is, exactly, he just can’t tell you.


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