ELKINS, W.Va.-- If you find the idea of traveling over the river and through he woods to cut down your own Christmas tree appealing, West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest has a place in mind for you.The river you'll be crossing is a section of Shavers Fork that winds its way across the top of Cheat Mountain east of Elkins and the woods are a blend of northern hardwoods and high-elevation red spruce. But the places where Christmas tree cutting is allowed (by permit only) are former strip mines onto which red spruce and several pine species are migrating. Cutting is also allowed on power line rights of way crossing the Mon south of U.S. 250 atop the mountain.For a $5 fee, available at the Greenbrier Ranger District office in Bartow or in the Monongahela National Forest headquarters building in Elkins, Christmas tree purists are issued a letter of authorization, a tree tag, and a map showing the authorized tree-hunting grounds."The letter of authorization allows the person carrying it to cut, but not dig, one tree," said Kate Goodrich-Arling, spokeswoman for the Monongahela forest. "The letter also kindly notes that they may not find a tree that meets their satisfaction," so the $5 fee won't be refunded if the perfect tree isn't found, she said.
Once cut, the tag issued by the Forest Service must be attached to the tree and remain on the evergreen while it is being transported."It's a good excuse to get out and walk in the woods and spend some time in nature at this time of the year," said Amy Cimarolli, director of science and stewardship for The Nature Conservancy at the organization's state headquarters in Elkins.Last Saturday, accompanied by friends and colleagues Ruth Thornton, Anne Hartman and Misty Downing, Cimarolli made her sixth annual Christmas tree pilgrimage to the Monongahela."We saw a golden eagle flying right over the road on the way up," Cimarolli said. "We parked at the parking area at Cheat Summit Fort (site of a Union Army Civil War encampment), and followed a power line to an old surface mine area. Along the edges, you can find a lot of trees to 'shop' from."The Elkins group found suitable-for-cutting trees in relatively short order, "but it was so nice out, we decided to keep walking and pick up the trees on the way back. You can find some nice views from that area because you're up so high," Cimarolli said.After the trees were cut, "we tagged them like you tag a deer" and brought them back to the Cheat Summit parking area, she said."We all chose red spruce," Cimarolli said. "It's great to have a fresh tree in the house. I like they way it looks and smells."While the Christmas tree hunters found a skiff of snow in a shaded area along the edge of the former surface mine where they cut their trees, access roads to the cutting area were snow-free last week."Usually, there's snow and ice on the road to the parking area, and you might have to walk up to a half-mile to get there," Cimarolli said.Nature Conservancy State Director Rodney Bartgis and his wife cut their tree earlier in the week near the same location, but under more Yule-like conditions."We like to cut our trees when there's snow on the ground," Bartgis said. "There was an inch or two of snow when we got our tree, and we probably walked a half-mile before finding the one we wanted and dragging it back to the car. It's a much-appreciated tree."
Bartgis also chose a red spruce."I like its nice deep-green color, and the fact that its needles are prickly enough to keep our cat off the tree," he said.While the Monongahela National Forest has allowed Christmas tree cutting at select sites for a number of years, it's an activity that hasn't caught on in a big way.As of Thursday, only 26 permits had been issued so far this season.Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.