Giant conifer from Alaska will grace US Capitol lawn

KENAI — Alaska’s forests will finally have a representative in Washington, D.C.: This year’s Capitol Christmas tree will be the first one from the Last Frontier.

Dozens of Alaskans gathered on the Kenai Peninsula Tuesday to watch the 75-foot Lutz spruce be uprooted, reported The Peninsula Clarion.

“It’s hard to believe,” said Keith Freeman, who has lived in Alaska for decades and watched the tree-cutting ceremony. “You know, there’s plenty of trees down there (the Lower 48). To pack one down (thousands of) miles, and all the volunteers …”

The Chugach National Forest tree is a hybrid of the Sitka spruce and the white spruce and was chosen as part of an annual program run by the U.S. Forest Service.

Alaska is the last U.S. Forest Service region to be chosen for the Capitol’s Christmas tree. Regional forester Beth Pendleton helped coordinate the effort and said she’s excited to see it come to fruition.

“It symbolizes so much of what Alaska’s about and the connection of the people to their land,” she said.

The tree will spend three weeks affixed to a trailer as it makes the journey from Alaska to Washington, D.C., where it will light up the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

Coordinating that 4,000-mile cross-country trip proved to be a logistical challenge.

“There are so many pieces of this, right? Everything from working with the lead senator, to the Architect of the Capitol, to truck drivers to local communities,” said Bruce Ward, the founder of U.S. Forest Service’s nonprofit partner Choose Outdoors. “It’s like a huge puzzle piece.”

The Lutz spruce had to be cut down from 75 feet to 67 feet before it could be secured on its trailer. It will have to catch a ship from Anchorage to Seattle and will be under the care of a single truck driver throughout the entire journey.

There are 13 stops on the route to Washington, and three teams will secure, decorate and string lights on the tree once it arrives.

The tree will also have a 60-gallon “bladder” attached during the trip to keep it hydrated. Amanda Villwock, a natural resources specialist for the Forest Service, will travel with the tree and keep it hydrated.

Selecting just the right tree for such a prominent display isn’t easy, either. The final decision lies with Architect of the Capitol Ted Bechtol, and he and the Forest Service have a list of requirements.

“We were looking for something that looked fairly uniform from all sides,” said Mona Spargo, Capitol Tree Project Coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. “Just, you know, a tree that looks stunning to us.”

Villwock spent three weeks walking the Chugach National Forest looking for contenders with full, attractive branches reaching all the way to the forest floor that were conical in shape.

“Certain forests may not have what we think of as typical Christmas trees,” said Bechtol, the Capitol architect, who flew to Alaska in May to make the final selection from the six finalists chosen by Villwock.

The tree will be decorated with more than 2,000 ornaments made by Alaska kids, residents and tribe members.

More than 200 of the decorations come from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, according to former director of tribal government affairs Alexandra “Sasha” Lindgren. She said it was great to see young tribe members learn skills, like using a traditional ulu knife, from their elders.

“This project is about strengthening bonds of community and family,” Lindgren said.

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