Hundreds of well-wishers filled with holiday cheer braved a cold Wallowa County morning Sunday to see a very special gift from Oregon to the nation.
The center of attention was a 70-foot Douglas fir tree carefully sealed in a cellophane wrapper on the back of an oversized logging truck.
The tree is on its way to Washington, D.C., where it will be erected in front of the U.S. Capitol and adorned with thousands of lights and hand handmade directions for the upcoming holiday season.
"We have sent lot of trees to Washington, D.C. but never one that has gone to the Capitol," said Cheryl Walters, public affairs director for the Umpqua National Forest who is doubling as co-chairperson of the Capitol Holiday Tree project.
The lush evergreen tree is being handled like crown jewels by an entourage of 30 government officials and volunteers who are accompanying the big conifer all the way to Washington, D.C. The tree is enclosed in a custom cellophane tent on top of a sparkling new logging truck. Inside the tent, created especially for the tree by the corporation that makes Bayliner boats, the tree is bungeed to the trailer underneath a system of hoses which spray 10 gallons of mist a day to keep the needles green. The tree is accompanied by an 18-wheeler semi-truck which contains more than 6,000 decorations created by people from across Oregon to be placed on the tree by the Capitol staff. A third vehicle, a shiny blue bus, carries a team of eight Forest Service employees and 22 volunteers, including a choral ensemble from Umpqua Community College that performs original music that tells the Oregon story. The caravan is following the Oregon Trail and making stops in dozens of small towns along the way.
"We've been having a good time. We love the small towns," said Walters, who was advised by her colleagues in Wyoming to avoid the cities. The Forest Service in Wyoming donated the national tree last year. "They said you'll get a better turnout in the smaller towns."
That strategy worked in Enterprise, where the national tree was escorted into town by the state police, then drew a large crowd to the courthouse lawn for more than an hour. The ceremony included speeches by government officials and Enterprise students, some of whom had created decorations for the tree, plus music by the Umpqua Community College choir.
One of the speakers was Bob Decker, who drove more than 400 miles from Roseburg, Ore., to replace a missing decal on one of the trucks.
"The support that we have received has just been incredible," Walters marveled, noting that the project was paid for by donations from Oregon corporations and individuals and through the sale of commemorative art, t-shirts, caps, and other items. For example, the truck carrying the tree was donated by Nick Yraguen, owner of a logging company in Sutherlin, Ore. Before the trip, Yraguen had a mural of U.S. military jets painted on the side of his big rig.
This is the first year that the national tree has come from Oregon, a state known for producing lots of trees.
"I was surprised by that statistic," said Kendall Clark, district ranger for the Eagle Cap and Hells Canyon wilderness areas.
Walters said that Oregon applied for the privilege of supplying that national holiday tree back in 1993 and was not awarded the job until 1995. Once the agency was notified that the tree would come from Oregon, Walters sent out a call to all of the ranger districts in the Umpqua National Forest to send in nominations for the tree they felt best represented Oregon.
The architect in charge of the project wanted a tree with open growth, branches all the way to the bottom, one that was free of insect damage, and green.
"I was told there are 38 million trees on the Umpqua" that meet those criteria, said Walters.
One would think that with so many trees it would be easy to find one that would work. Not so, according to Walters.
"It's a project that took a lot of time," she said.
One reason for that is the Umpqua National Forest had 88,000 acres of forest fires last summer. As a result, all of the field persons who were in positions to help locate the right tree were out fighting fire.
The Umpqua staff eventually narrowed the selection to five trees, and sent pictures of the finalists to the architect, who made the final selection - a 91-foot tree located just 200 feet from the Tokette ranger station near Diamond Lake.
"I thought it would be easier than that," said Walters. "I thought we would cut the tree and they would send in Air Force One to pick it up."