• by Chris Stewart

Stalking the Wild Conifer

During the holiday season, Christmas tree hunters have always achieved a much higher "bag" ratio thatn their counterparts who scout the forests for deer in November. While only 10 percent of those who stalk deer may return with a trophy, a whopping 99 percent of tree hunters who tramp the woods eventually take one home.

Historically, experts have assumed that the reason for this startling discrepancy stemmed from the abundance of conifers. Far more evergreens grow than deer. In recent years, however, new evidence, uncovered by dedicated researchers, points to an entirely different cause. After lengthy and thorough private studies, experts now believe that tree hunters realize great success because the trees do not move.

Buoyed by this new information, novice hunters may flock to the woods this season in search of their own Christmas tree. Still, before departing, first-time tree hunters should take a few minutes to learn some of the basic rules, for tree hunting - like other outdoor sports - is a bit more complicated than it might appear.

Unless they can secure permission from private land owners, hunters should plan on taking a tree from the White Mountain National Forest, an area that encompasses some 750,000 acres in the North Country. While regulations for cutting are generally the same, be certain to check specific details at individual Ranger Stations.

Those cutting within the boundary of the Saco District should register at the Ranger Station which is located near the intersection of the Kancamagus Highway and Route 16 in Conway. Aside from its regular weekday hours from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., that office will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate permit seekers. By paying the $1.00 (covering stumpage cost), each person is entitled to cut one balsam fir or spruce tree only. [NOTE: This information may have changed since 1980.]

Assistant Ranger Quentin Mack noted that everyone who registers is also given a list of rules and a map showing where, and where not, to cut. Although these regulations forbid cutting within 100 feet of a road, trail or stream, tree hunters are allowed greater leeway than in the past. "We do permit people to cut larger trees and take only the top," Mack said. "For example, someone who wanted an eight-foot tree can cut a 20-foot spruce or balsam fir as long as he cleaned up the area. We ask each person to limb the left-over tree and make it lie flat on the ground."

"We'd like to stress that the trees are for home use only and not meant for re-sale," Mack continued. "People may want to pick up an extra tree for a neighbor, and this is allowed as long as you register your neighbor's name and pay the $1.00 fee."

Mack suggested that, in the Saco District, tree hunters might try the Passaconaway Valley or the East Branch areas for best results. He cautioned, though, that people should be warned that ungated Forest Service roads leading into areas such as the East Branch, Meserve Brook, Rocky Branch and the Sawyer River are not maintained for winter travel. To harvest a tree in these areas he recommended skiing, snowmobiling or hiking, rather that driving on the road. Anyone planning to circumvent the tree-cutting rules should make new plans. "We do have Christmas tree patrols going out on a regular basis," Mack warned. "You will be fined at least $50 if caught."

As a final note of caution, Mack advised tree hunters that the perfectly formed conifers raised on Christmas tree farms rarely exist in the wild. "Suitable small trees just aren't out there in great numbers in nature," he said. But this is no reason to give up the hunt. Many old-timers, accustomed to nature's whims, simply rearrange the branches of the tree. By lopping off a sprig or two from the tree's thick side, then drilling holes and reinserting the sprigs into the tree's thin side, most ungainly trees suddenly improve in appearance. Those opposed to this sort of cosmetic surgery can place their tree in a convenient corner where the tree's less handsome side is hidden from critical eyes.

Bringing the tree home

Whether a person hunts for an evergreen or buys it from a vendor, once the tree is in the home special care should be exercised to insure its safe use. Fire represents the greatest danger, particularly now that more and more people heat with wood. Both the Cooperative Extension Service and the Forest Service suggest keeping the tree outside until the time for decoration arrives. "Don't put it inside the house before you need to," Mack said "and when you do, water it daily. Most trees take at least a quart of water each day." County Forester Peter Pohl echoed Mack's advice. "Giving the tree warm water when you first put it in the stand will make it last longer because the heat will expand the tree's tissues," Pohl noted. "Adding a teaspoon of sugar to the water will also help, as will sprinkling the tree daily."

As an added precaution, Pohl suggested that people spray their trees with fireproofing solution - seven ounces of Borax, three ounces of boric acid with two quarts of water. Pohl also recommended a twice-daily check of the tree's water supply; trees tend to soak up a lot of water, particularly in the first few days inside a warm, dry home.

Although common sense dictates keeping a tree far from fireplaces, stoves and other heating sources, some people unfortunately, may forget. "Humidity in most homes during the winter is very low," Mack explained, "and because of this trees dry out quickly. Pine in particular rapidly loses its moisture and has long flammable needles. If at all possible, don't put the tree in the same room as a wood stove or next to baseboard or space hearers." All sources of heat are potential dangers.

Because trees lose moisture so rapidly, some Christmas vacationers may unknowingly invite trouble if they don't take proper precautions. "Some second-home owners who come to the mountains for the holidays aren't prepared," Mack pointed out. "To save time, they might nail two boards together, send a spike up through the center, and then set their tree on the spike. In this way the tree gets no water at all and quickly becomes a fire hazard. It's definitely a bad practice."

Again, in decorating the tree, common sense applies. Avoid combustible decorations - such as paper and crepe - and flame reflectors for colored lights. Be certain to check electrical lights for broken or cracked sockets. loose connections or frayed, bare wire. Keep metal foil tinsel out of the bulb sockets. In addition, make sure to turn off electical lights before leaving the house or going to bed. Never use candles.

While the Christmas tree's path from woods to home may seem long and, at times, filled with dozens of rules, the final result - particularly for families who cut their own - is worth the effort. The rules are simply common sense and the do-it-yourself effort can be its own reward. "Chances of finding the right tree are good if you take the time to look," Mack observed. "This is one time when the entire family has the chance to spend a day together out-of-doors. We feel strongly about maintaining this family tradition and we ask the public to support it by self-regulation. There aren't many places where you can do this anymore, and we're pleased to keep the White Mountain National Forest open to Christmas tree gathering. It's a fine part of Christmas."

For additional Christmas tree information, people are invited to contact the Saco District Ranger Office at (603) 447-5448 or the Carroll County Cooperative Extension Service at (603) 447-5922.

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