Faces of the Chugach - Ted Bechtol

SourDough News | June 19th, 2015

 

Ted Bechtol, Superintendent, Capitol Grounds, visits the Chugach National Forest

Ted Bechtol, Superintendent, Capitol Grounds, visits the Chugach National Forest with Supervisor Terri Marceron, LEO Chris Lampshire, and Seward District Ranger Tom Malecek.

Closeup of Lutz spruce needles

Closeup of Lutz spruce needles, a hybrid of Sitka spruce and White spruce found in Southcentral Alaska.

Capitol Grounds Superintendent Ted Bechtol ponders the suitability of a candidate tree.

Capitol Grounds Superintendent Ted Bechtol ponders the suitability of a candidate tree with Seward District Ranger Tom Malecek.

Tree Selection Team

Team: Terri Marceron, Tom Maleck, Ted Bechtol, Laura Condeluci, Chris Lampshire, Mona Spargo, Mandy Mico, Torey Powell and Ralph Radford.

Faces of the Chugach National Forest

This year, the Chugach National Forest will be providing the 2015 Capitol Christmas Tree which will stand tall on the west lawn of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. As part of the yearlong celebration leading up to the tree lighting, we are sharing some of the stories of the outstanding employees who serve as stewards and managers of the Chugach, the “jewel” of the National Forest System. 

 

Our Faces of the Chugach series features not only employees, but also partners and friends of the Chugach National Forest. This past May, Ted Bechtol, Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds in Washington, D.C., visited Alaska to take a look at six candidate trees to pick the one that will become the 2015 Capitol Christmas Tree. Also visiting with Bechtol was Public Affairs Specialist Laura Condeluci. Here are their insights.

 

What exactly does it take for a tree to become the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree?

Bechtol: That’s a good question. It’s a challenge every year to find what I think’s going to be the most perfectly shaped tree to go out the west lawn of the Capitol. It goes pretty much right in the middle of the central lawn area. That’s where we have our special events. It’s a real focal point, and falls on the east-west axis from the Capitol building to the Washington Monument. It is a very prominent location.

 

The tree can be seen from all sides, from the Capitol Building and from the Washington Monument side, so it really has to look good from 360°.  It can’t have any thin spots or branches that stick out a lot on one side or the other. It has to be a perfect conical shape.

 

I understand that different species are going to have different characteristics. Some are naturally thinner and taller with different foliage textures. What I look for is a really healthy and vibrant representative, whether the tree is a Lutz spruce or balsam fir. I’m looking for a tree with a standout ornamental character.

 

How many years have you been involved with this project?

This is the 11th year I have been involved with selecting the Capitol tree. Plus, one year I worked on the Santa Fe National Forest project with one of my predecessors.

 

Have you gotten to know a lot of Forest Service people on your 11-year journey?

Yes, that’s been a highlight, to tell the truth, because the Forest Service teams are usually very motivated. Everyone already has a lot of responsibilities and collateral duties. To break routine and do something additional takes a lot of extra effort. It’s a great project for both the Forest Service as well as the local communities where the trees come from.

 

Why is providing the Capitol Christmas tree good for a particular region?

It’s a chance for the region to show off its natural resources on a big stage, but it is also goes a step beyond that. It’s a chance to show off the culture and historical resources of the state, or the culture of Native Americans who live there. We see those things reflected the themes chosen by each region. We also see the local cultures reflected in the character of the ornaments that are created by the people of the state. For example, from the southwest you are going to see ornaments made like dream catchers or with Spanish culture themes. I love to see the ornaments every year.

 

Now that you have seen the candidate trees from the Chugach, what is your next step?

I have declared the winner of the beauty contest from the Chugach candidate trees. It’s easier to make the choice in the field. Sometimes I sit on the decision a day or two. The sooner we make the selection the better.

 

We keep the tree location a secret, limited to a small number of people. We don’t really worry about vandalism, but you never know what’s going on out there. It’s just something the Forest Service needs to keep in mind. There was a case in Vermont where they lost a potential candidate tree to a beaver.

 

Our theme on the Chugach is A Gift from the Great Land. Will people be happy to see a tree from Alaska?

I think so. Washington, D.C. is so cosmopolitan, and so many people have never been to Alaska. They only see it on TV. They enjoy watching shows about whales or mountain climbing, or even the reality shows.

 

Do you have a favorite tree from the past?

That’s like asking me if I have favorite children. I don’t know if it’s a favorite, but I do have a pen and ink sketch of the first tree I selected on my own from Olympic National Forest. It was a Pacific silver fir. The artist gave me a print, and I framed it and put it in my office.

 

Do some trees present more challenges than others?

Some trees have been more challenging in terms of decorating. Sometimes a particular tree might be very fragile and lose a lot of branches in the wrapping and shipping process. It’s a big job for our staff to infill and make repairs. Then we have to deal with weather conditions when we decorate the tree and put the lights on. Washington, D.C. is just notorious for lousy weather in December, with 34 degree rainstorms, snow, and spells of cold weather in the 20s.
Are there any special challenges in getting a tree from Alaska?

 

It’s really just a question of distance. We have a good species [Lutz spruce] that’s going to hold its needles well. I think the trip to move it across country needs to be timely.

 

How do you get the tree up?

We have a core crew of seven people who work on the lights and decoration. It’s primarily my regular tree crew, who are all certified arborists. They do tree maintenance and take care of our historic specimens at the Capitol on a day-to-day basis. We bring in some extra help from our construction division when it’s time to actually bring the tree up the lawn with a crane. We lift the tree up and drop it in the hole. Then masons pour concrete around the base to give the tree a foothold, and then we cable it to four ground anchors. We haven’t lost a tree yet, and we’ve had up to 45 mph sustained winds. We load test the anchors periodically.

 

Is there a maximum height or width of tree that you can handle?

We can only go so high, about 60 feet or so, with our bucket trucks. We use one bucket truck for our tree crew and one is for use by our high voltage electrician shop. We put a star on top of the tree, and it has to be supported on a pole about 12 feet long because the treetop will be thin. With that said, I want to put up the largest tree we can. The range is generally 55 to 80 feet. If we have a tree that is larger, say, 90 feet, we will have to cut it down. We have had a 95-foot tree, but we were not able to use the first 15 or 20 feet.

 

Will you get to come back to Alaska before the year is over?

This will be my only trip to Alaska. I will not be coming back for the tree cutting.

 

Laura, do you have anything you would like to share?

This is not only my first trip to Alaska, but also the first trip I have made to look at candidate trees with Ted. I don’t have a point of comparison for how the experience has been with other forests. But I can say for sure the Chugach National Forest is spectacular. It was truly amazing to see just untouched so much of it is, and how few roads you have. I enjoyed the wildlife, too, including the bald eagle and a porcupine we saw.


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