So you’ve been waiting all year for your chance to get a Forest Service Christmas tree, watching the smoke from the burning slash piles drift through town.
Perfect: The forest is choked with millions of little trees and Rim residents are clamoring for a chance to get out there and turn problem trees into Christmas trees.
One little problem.
Paysonites who want the $15 tags to cut their own tree will have to drive to Phoenix, Show Low or Flagstaff to get a permit from a Big Five Sporting Goods Store.
This year, the Forest Service has available 6,325 Christmas tree permits.
That is way better than last year — a nearly 50-percent increase.
But the Forest Service came close to canceling the whole program, since it cost more to administer than it yielded in fees, said Candy Luhrsen, who manages the Christmas tree program for the Forest Service statewide.
The Big Five contract essentially saved the program, by removing the administrative burden from the Forest Service, which previously used a mail-in lottery system.
Still, it has left Payson out in the cold.
“I agree, there’s a problem for Payson residents,” said Luhrsen of the reliance on Big Five as the exclusive outlet for the permits. The nearest outlet is up in Show Low.
Luhrsen vowed to try to find another outlet in Payson, to augment the sales of the permits from Big Five. The Payson Ranger Station on the outskirts of town does not sell the permits.
Still, said Luhrsen “we increased the program by nearly 50 percent. Now the program is viable and growing — whereas before last year it was a question about whether we ended the whole program.”
Still, she acknowledged the strange ironies of the bureaucratic system for handing out the permits, which allow a family to search the forest for that perfect Christmas tree.
Irony one: People who live in the forest have to drive 100 miles down into the desert to get a permit to go looking for a tree along a dirt road out their back door.
Irony two: The system sharply limits the number of small trees people can cut and charges them $15 per permit, even though the Forest Service from another pocket is paying millions of dollars to thin dangerously overgrown forests surrounding all of those forest communities.
“We do have regulations we have to follow,” said Luhrsen. “It’s not something we’re just dreaming up on our own. But it’s working and it’s benefiting the resource and it’s benefiting the public — so they can go out there and have their memories.”
The Forest Service for the past five years hired crews to clear small trees from thousands of acres of forest around Pine, Strawberry, Payson, Star Valley and Christopher Creek. The hand-thinning costs about $800 to $1,200 per acre, but will create a fire break around some of the most fire-threatened communities in the nation.
Each of the three national forests that cover the Rim Country has its own rules for the Christmas tree harvest program.
Coconino National Forest didn’t even participate last year, but allocated 250 tree permits this year and sold them all.
Tonto National Forest, which includes a great expanse of desert near Phoenix and runs up to the edge of the Mogollon Rim northeast of Payson, contributed 300 permits, which are also sold out.
The White Mountain-based Apache Sitgreaves National Forest contributed the bulk of the tree permits this year and, as of last week, still had 1,000 available.
However, Payson residents would have to drive to Show Low to get a permit from the Big Five outlet there.
The three forests intersect right where Highway 260 tops out on the Rim above Christopher Creek, so why not just sell tags for all three forests at the Payson Ranger Station?
“That question has come up,” said Luhrsen. “In the timber regulations, that’s not allowed.” Although she said cutting a Christmas tree might seem like a recreational activity, it actually falls under the rules for selling timber, she noted.
“The short story is that we’re always looking for ways to improve. We’ve worked some of the kinks out of the new system, so it’ll get better,” she concluded.