By Keith Lannom, Forest Supervisor, Payette National Forest
After more than a year of planning, the 2016 US Capitol Christmas Tree project is almost complete. Brian Harris and Chris Niccoli are driving back to McCall now, once they are home safely, I will consider the project 100% complete.
Tuesday evening, December 6th, Idaho 5th grader Isabella Gerard and Speaker Ryan flipped the switch to light the Engelmann Spruce that the Payette National Forest provided. The crowd was pretty small due to the pouring rain, but it was an enthusiastic crowd. Every time the Payette or Forest Service was mentioned there a collective “YEAH!!!!” from the Idaho contingent.
We had 3 goals for this project:
· #1 – Engage youth around the State of Idaho – we asked them to help make ornaments for the big tree and 70 smaller, companion trees. We were hoping to get 8,000, we got 18,000 – that was a success.
· #2 – Connect with the public and educate them on the value of National Forests – we made 31 stops as the tree traveled around Idaho and across the country – based on the tens of thousands of signatures on the banners on the trailer – that was a success too.
· #3 – Deliver a big, beautiful Christmas Tree – success.
We learned many things as we planned for this and journeyed across the country. Such as:
· People LOVE the tree – especially in small communities where they don’t often get to be part of something on a national scale like this. Paducah, Kentucky is the prime example. They were so excited, they hosted two events for the tree to make sure everyone in town had an opportunity to see it. Or Weiser where the school district brought all 2,000 students out to see the tree.
· We learned just how much space 105 foot truck and trailer need to park or turn around. And that rest area on Interstate 40 near the Caney Fork River is NOT a good place to take a 105 foot oversized load.
· Lastly, we learned the vast majority of the public appreciate what the Forest Service does and they came out to say Thank You.
We had excellent partners and sponsors. They helped pay for the cost of transporting the tree, the receptions in DC, and other expenses. We couldn’t have completed this huge project without them. Gary Amoth, owner of Amoth Trucking was an outstanding partner. He gave so much of his time and he was a great ambassador at every stop along the way too.
We had two local high school students who turned this opportunity into their senior project. Bridger Dittmer and Samuel Billingsley designed unique ornaments and then organized the production of 350 ornaments. Bridger and Sam were able to attend the lighting ceremony through support from Choose Outdoors and other sponsors.
We also have a representative from the Payette Children’s Forest, Cory Allred, who went to DC. Last summer Cory was part of the Council Education Resource Crew. The CERC crew worked on watershed restoration, range improvement, and trail maintenance for the Forest, as well as for the County. Their salaries are funded by the Forest Service and grants from the Southwest Idaho Resource Advisory Committee, and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation. Cory and her mother, Mona, were able to join us through support from Choose Outdoors and sponsors.
We also took that big artwork produced by the students at the Centennial Job Corps in Nampa, Idaho with assistance from the College of Western Idaho to DC. There were too many Job Corps students who worked on this to travel to DC, but they were all able to attend an event on the steps of the State Capitol in Boise. The big steel logo is on its way to McCall and we plan on displaying somewhere at the SO.
McCall’s Mayor, Jackie Aymon, traveled to DC and spread the good word about our community.
As that 105 foot trailer traveled across the country, it was escorted by numerous law enforcement agencies. We had four Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers, Amy Ohme, Breck Young, Wayne Dingman (Boise NF), and Jade Sumsion (Sawtooth NF) with it the entire trip. They did an outstanding job coordinating with other law enforcement departments and were great ambassadors for the Forest Service.
The Idaho State Police trooper, Brandalyn Crapo, who was in the accident the first day of the tour was able to attend the lighting also. She signed the banner at the event in Cascade before the accident and we cut that piece of the banner out and presented it to her at the Chief’s Reception.
The day the tree was cut, a reporter asked me what it meant to me to be part of providing a Christmas tree for the US Capitol. I fumbled through it and fortunately, my response never aired. But if you were to ask me that question again today, I would say this was more than just about bringing a tree and ornaments to DC. It’s about spreading joy to everyone who came out to see the tree or took a selfie in front of Gary’s truck or followed the tour on Facebook or made one of the thousands of ornaments. The first time I experienced this Capitol Christmas Tree joy was when Senator Crapo announced that Isabella had been selected to help light the tree. Her response was so genuine and true, it was just a beautiful moment. At the event in Blacksburg, Virginia I met a woman whose family had lived in DC for 25 years and every year they would go see the Capitol Christmas Tree as a family. They recently moved to Blacksburg and were not going to see the tree at the Capitol this year. She was so excited to see the tree in her new hometown that she was moved to tears.
I think the best part of this project for me personally, has been watching how four Payette employees collaborated with each other, Choose Outdoors, Gary Amoth, and all our other partners to make this project successful. This has been a model of how shared leadership can work. Those leaders were:
· Pattie Soucek, aka the Glitter Queen. Pattie led the ornament and tree skirt production branch.
· Kim Pierson. Kim led the organization of the tour, the receptions, and the tree cutting event.
· Brian Harris. Brian was our communications and partnership branch lead.
· Chris Niccoli. Chris led the Logistics branch, which included finding candidate trees, cutting the selected tree, and getting it here.
They did much more than I could include here, but they were personally committed to this project and gave so much of themselves to make it happen. Together, their leadership made it possible to get that beautiful Idaho Mountain Gem to DC. I am very proud of the team and what they have accomplished.
This is the 46th year the tree has come from a National Forest and we wanted to start a new tradition to recognize those Forests that have come before us and those that will follow. We wanted to “pass the torch” to the 2017 Capitol Christmas Tree forest, the Kootenai. So, we reached out to a master woodworker, who just happens to be the Director of Grey Towers National Historic Site, Bill Dauer. Bill created a plaque depicting a Christmas tree in front of the Capitol. On the back, Bill has inscribed the names of all the Forests that have provided the Capitol Christmas tree.
I appreciate every employee who contributed in any way to the 2016 US Capitol Christmas Tree project. We were wildly successful. I overheard one WO employee who has been involved with past CCT projects say “the Payette has set the new standard.” At the SO Christmas Party on Dec 16, we will recognize employees who were part of the larger team that helped put this project off successfully.