Dear Modern Farmer: Is It Legal to Cut Down a Christmas Tree in a National Forest?

Dear Modern Farmer: Is It Legal to Cut Down a Christmas Tree in a National Forest?

Dear Modern Farmer,

I’m tired of the pre-cut Christmas trees at my local market and there are no tree farms nearby. It all leaves me uninspired about the holiday. Can I go cut my own from the nearby forest instead? I think it’s owned by the government.

Thanks,
Paul B.

Dear Paul,

You just might be in luck. First, you absolutely must confirm who owns the forested property, both the part where you want to cut your tree and the access way in. Entering onto private land and cutting down trees without permission is trespassing, even if it is by mistake. That kind of thing can land you in some very hot water, including some very serious monetary penalties.

The good news is that the federal government does allow cutting in some of its national forests. In particular, Christmas trees can be cut from some land owned/operated by the USDA’s United States Forest Service (USFS) or the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  The key is that you must obtain a permit first.

The good news is that the federal government does allow cutting in some of its national forests.

The USFS operates regionally throughout the U.S., which means you will need to reach out to the local Forest or Ranger district office that has jurisdiction over the USFS forest near you. Fortunately, the USFS offers a lot of good information on many of their regional websites.

For example, the Rocky Mountain Region has general information about its Regional Christmas Tree Program, and more detailed information including the cost of permits ($10), cutting requirements (such as no chainsaws or ATVs), guidelines (like cutting trees that are close to other trees which aids in forest thinning), safety recommendations, and core cutting dates (though be sure to call first; I noticed that this was last year’s information but other regional USFS websites were updated). In this region, you can get one tree per permit (that seems to hold true for other USFS regions too), and up to five permits per person (however, this is not uniform across the U.S., some regions cap the limit at one tree per family). There are no refunds on the permits, and the permit tag must be visible on the tree when you leave the forest. There are also cutting area maps for the states in that region (Colorado, plus a Front Range/Denver Metro area map, Nebraska, South Dakota and a portion of Wyoming; although Kansas is part of the Rocky Mountain Region, there is no cutting allowed on the USFS land in that state). In contrast, the Intermountain Region of the USFS (Utah, Nevada, western Wyoming and southern/central Idaho) does not have as much information online, but there is a cool little video about a family that cuts down its trees in the National Forest.

The dates for cutting are limited, as are the number of permits available, so best to get a jump on the season not too long after Thanksgiving when most permits are first offered. In some cases, the dates for cutting have already ended this year. But in many areas, such as in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington state, you can still get a permit. These permits are sold at two REI locations as well as Forest Service offices. For a $10 permit, you can cut a tree up to twelve (12’) feet tall. For taller trees, the permits cost $20 and are available only at the Forest Service offices. Incidentally, if you’re decorating for the season and want to collect pine cones or tree boughs in this region in quantities beyond “incidental amounts”, you might also need to obtain a permit in advance. Similarly, the Arizona National Forests offers much good information about the status of permit availability, locations for purchase and cutting dates (all trees must be cut by Christmas Eve).

Fortunately, most permit applications are simple (like this one) and the fee is in the range of $5 to 20, which seems like a steal considering I just purchased a puny pre-cut Frasier Fir at my local farm for $60!

Fortunately, most permit applications are simple (like this one) and the fee is in the range of $5 to 20, which seems like a steal considering I just purchased a puny pre-cut Frasier Fir at my local farm for $60! Note that most USFS offices only accept cash, check or money orders (no debit or credit cards). You can usually obtain your permit in person at participating USFS offices, and sometimes by mail (but call first because not all offices allow applications by mail and even if they do, it can take up to a week to process, so pay attention to the tree cutting dates).

Once you secure a permit, you must pay attention to several things so that you do not run afoul of the law or put yourself or the ecosystem in harm’s way. All permit holders are usually subject to a set of rules or regulations (which are law) as well as some guidelines (which are more like strong recommendations that aim to protect you or the ecosystem). The rules might include minimum or maximum trunk diameter size, maximum tree height, permissible or prohibited tree species, maximum stump height and authorized cutting areas. In some regions, you must cut your tree a minimum distance from all traveled public ways, and there are often prohibited or protected areas (or individual marked trees) that cannot be cut at all.

Some permit rules require you to be in possession of the applicable tree cutting map at all times during your excursion. Additionally, most rules prohibit “tree topping”, or the cutting of only the top part of the taller trees. Safety guidelines often include reminders about proper gear and clothing for winter weather, the use of tire chains, and paying attention to weather, daylight and road conditions, particularly since most trees must be obtained some distance from your parked vehicle or roadway. If you are not given a set of regulations and guidelines, ask. Violating the terms of your permit could cost you up to $5,000 and/or six months in jail!

On its website, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California notes that there are some important considerations with California state law if you plan on transporting more than five trees on one vehicle. I note this because although this is federal land, there are often state laws that may apply in some circumstances. Another federal-state law example would be balsam fir bough harvesting in Minnesota, which has permitting requirements regardless of whether the collecting takes place on public or private land. Ask your local forest ranger or district office for guidance if you are unsure about applicable state laws in your area.

Similar to the USFS, the BLM, which owns land primarily in the twelve Western states (including Alaska), offers some limited information on its website too. For example, the BLM site for Utah, offers some descriptions about the various kinds of trees (pinyon pine and Utah juniper, for example) that can be cut and found in Utah. For Colorado, the BLM also provides some map information on its site as well as where permits can be purchased. The BLM also issued this press release for cutting trees on BLM land in Oregon (contains a few links within the document, like this FAQ).

“Fir” fun, you can compare the number of permits offered and used among regions: look at the USFS Kaibab National Forest (Arizona), where thousands of people take advantage of this fun opportunity (10,650 permits available in 2013) versus the USFS White Mountain National Forest (New Hampshire) where only hundreds seem to partake. Perhaps not surprisingly, the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack takes advantage of this wonderful program and gets his own Christmas tree from Pike National Forest in Colorado.

As for state-owned forests, it appears that many are off-limits, like in Washington state where one website reminds residents that trees and boughs cannot be cut from state forests. But it doesn’t hurt to do your research because you may find a state forest in your area that does allow tree cutting, like in Florida’s Lake Wales Ridge State Forest (Arbuckle tract only) or in the Tanana Valley State Forest in Alaska (which is free!).

Cutting your own tree in the wilderness can be an exciting and memorable experience and there are many others who look forward to this time of year. Check out these recent articles about the National Forest Christmas tree cutting experience: The Seattle Times, The Gazette (Colorado Springs/Pikes Peak region) and Men’s Journal. And if you’re pining for another cool video, check out this one from the USFS Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington.

Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and for educational purposes only. It is not intended as specific legal or any other advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing thereof does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. The reader is encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney or other professional when an opinion is needed.

Kristen M. Ploetz, Esq., is a zoning/land use attorney and Founder/Manager of Green Lodestar Communications & Consulting, LLC (www.greenlodestar.com).