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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: It might just be the most expensive Christmas tree in the nation. Tonight they’ll flip the switch on the U.S Capitol Christmas tree. This year for the first time it’s a gift from the state of Washington. Austin Jenkins with the Northwest News Network found out it takes a lot of money, careful planning, and even some smoke and mirrors to deliver.
AUSTIN JENKINS: By secret invitation last month, I found myself standing on a logging road deep in the Olympic National Forest with about 50 other special guests. We gazed up at the chosen tree: a 65-foot Pacific silver fir.
Phil Zembas, recently retired from the forest service, stood off to the side looking a bit nervous.
PHIL ZEMBAS: “The challenge is to get it down in one piece, no breaking of the limbs and I’ve given this quite a bit of thought over the last two weeks. Some of it at 2 and 3 in the morning.”
You see Zembas’ job was to wield the chainsaw. After some joking around about how many forest service employees it takes to cut down a Christmas tree, it was show time.
TREE CUTTER: Heads-up down here and let’s go ahead and cut it and get this tree on its way to Washington, D.C.
You might think cutting down a tree and shipping it to the U.S. capitol would be a fairly straightforward proposition. Well, think again. The planning for this started last spring. First, several possible trees had to be located.
Then a representative from the architect of the capitol office flew out to select the finalist. There was also a formal environmental review. Then there was the issue of trucking the tree across the country.
All this logistical stuff doesn’t come cheap. The forest service in Idaho estimates it cost nearly a million dollars to provide the capitol tree back in 2003. Washington State expects to do it for a quarter of that.
Fortunately for taxpayers corporate donations offset most of the cost. There’s also an opportunity for individuals to contribute by purchasing merchandise.
JIM ADAMS: This is what’s known in the trade as logo merchandise.
Jim Adams is with the Northwest Interpretative Association. On the day of the tree harvest, he set up a makeshift souvenir shop in the woods complete with credit card machine. He was selling hats, fleece vests and other commemorative items with the official capitol Christmas tree logo.
ADAMS: You can see it’s got the Evergreen branch with a little ornament hanging off that says USA from Washington.
JENKINS: People complain Christmas is already too commercialized. Shouldn’t this be maybe the one non-commercialized . . .
ADAMS: Well it’s not actually. I wouldn’t say this is a commercial event. The problem that we have is that there really isn’t enough cash to make this happen. And so the only way we can do that is to earn some.”
Back at the harvest site, the chainsaw finally cuts through the tree. A crane gently lowers the silver fir onto a flatbed trailer for its trip across the country. Now here’s a little secret about the capitol Christmas tree:
KARL DENISON: “We’re going to have to doctor this one up just a little bit. A little nip and tuck.”
Yes, says Karl Denison with the forest service, the capitol Christmas tree is in for some cosmetic surgery.
I’m Austin Jenkins for Marketplace.
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