As wildfire preparedness professionals we are used to seeing and marking small trees, often in the understory, to be removed as part of fuels reduction projects. West Region Wildfire Council is among the innovators who have taken advantage of the opportunity to match these trees with people who would like a Christmas tree but don’t have the means to get one for themselves.
Since 2015, the West Region Wildfire Council (WRWC), based in Montrose, has worked with their local Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) Office on a Christmas Tree Program. Inspired by the Christmas Tree Lot that the San Juan Mountains Association conducts as a fundraiser in Durango, and noticing that there were a lot of small piñon pine trees marked for removal on cost-share projects that year, WRWC decided to brighten the holidays with donated trees. WRWC teamed up with Partners of Montrose, Ouray, and Delta Counties to match the mitigation project trees with families in need of Christmas Trees, donating ten trees that first year. One lot owner who was participating in a defensible space project that year also provided gift cards for families to decorate their trees. Staff now keep their eyes open for Christmas tree harvesting sites when marking mitigation projects.
Each year, West Region Wildfire Council has added to the list of social service organizations identifying families to receive Christmas tree donations. The program has grown to include the Partners Program, Court Appointed Special Advocates, Habitat for Humanity, Hilltop Community Resources, Sleep in Heavenly Peace, and Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans. Each organization outreached to their program participants and provided a number of families requesting trees to WRWC before a December 1st deadline so that the volunteer tree harvesters would know how many to cut. The addition of the Alliance for Veterans in 2018 nearly doubled the number of Christmas trees donated to local families this year.
,Additionally, over the last few years, the Salvation Army has donated many tree stands, lights, and ornaments to help the families decorate their trees.
In early December, West Region Wildfire Council and Colorado State Forest Service Montrose and Gunnison field office staff (and some of their dogs) spent the day in the field cutting trees to be donated to 94 families who needed Christmas trees. In cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, most of the trees were harvested from BLM land that is scheduled for prescribed fire in the next year or two, while some were still gathered from homeowner defensible space projects. WRWC and CSFS personnel, who share office space, set up a tree lot in their office backyard and families were able to peruse the yard and select their tree. You can read the CSFS news story here.
Further south, the San Juan Mountains Association has added locally harvested white-fir trees from the San Juan National Forest (SJNF) to their annual Christmas tree lot. They also partner with the SJNF, Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and Wildfire Adapted Partnership to identify a tree harvesting site along the railroad tracks and help train riders select and harvest a tree that is hauled back in a rail car. Visitors from across the country have helped remove understory trees and strapped them on top of their vehicles to drive all the way home from the Durango railway station.
For several years running, Falls Creek Ranch, a neighborhood of 100 lots and 800 acres of open space just outside of Durango, invites their residents to harvest Christmas trees from priority treatment areas identified by their local CSFS office. The Firewise committee and Neighborhood Ambassador always have hot cocoa on hand and make it a fun neighborhood event. Proceeds from their “tree permits” go into their wildfire mitigation fund.
Whether sharing good will, building neighborhood comradery, raising awareness of wildfire risk and forest health, or raising funds for conservation, there is no doubt that there are many worthwhile opportunities to reduce wildfire risk and provide Christmas trees in Colorado.