Richard and Hillory Bennett and their young son and daughter could have gone to a Christmas tree lot and plunked down $50 or $60 for a perfectly symmetrical white fir or pinyon pine.
Instead, as they have for the previous 13 years, the Colorado Springs family headed to the forests of the Rampart Range near Woodland Park on Sunday to cut their own tree.
“The first time we came out here was magical. The snow was falling slowly, and we always come back,” Hillory Bennett said.
While the experience might be described as priceless, the cost is actually only $20 for a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, which designates which areas are open to tree cutting.
The Bennetts have a favorite spot they’ve been going back to every year, where they also shoot a family Christmas photo.
“I tend to go more into the valleys,” Richard Bennett said. “The trees down here get more water.”
Once the family reaches a consensus on which tree they want, he does the chopping.
The annual pilgrimage, while providing a wholesome — and inexpensive — family outing, also improves the health of the forest, said Dawn Sanchez, Forest Service spokeswoman and fire prevention technician.
Cutting down some of the smaller trees eliminates what is known as ladder fuels — a firefighting term for live or dead vegetation that allows a fire to climb from the forest floor into the tree canopy.
“What we’re doing here is attempting to clear out lower trees for fire prevention,” Sanchez said. “Also, trees compete for nutrients, water and sunlight so cutting these smaller trees out allows the bigger trees to grow stronger.”
Sanchez admires those who keep the tradition alive, noting one couple she encountered has been using this area to get a Christmas tree for nearly 40 years.
“This is largely about the family experience,” she said. “Parents will bring hot cocoa and sleds for the kids. We want people to have fun and follow the rules — do the right thing.”
Sanchez said one of the biggest issues is that people will cut halfway up the trunk, “and that defeats the whole purpose” of fire mitigation. It is essential for the tree to be cut at the base of the trunk.
The last day to cut down a tree in the national forest is Dec. 14. The Woodland Park Work Center, at 1408 Rampart Range Road, will stop selling permits at 3:30 p.m. each weekend day.
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