Leadership Corner

2018 Capitol Christmas Tree: A field perspective

December 7th, 2018 at 2:15PM

Yesterday, I had the honor to speak at the lighting of the Capitol Christmas Tree. Hundreds of dedicated Forest Service employees and volunteers made sure this magnificent noble fir travelled safely from Oregon's Willamette National Forest to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Today I want to invite three members of this team—Nikki Swanson, Molly Juillerat and Tim Lahey—to share the story of that journey. Their story is our story, and it is one that connects us at an emotional human level to the people we serve.

—Chief Vicki Christiansen

Photo: 2018 Capitol Christmas Tree; White House seen in the background. Daylight.Nikki Swanson—2018 Capitol Christmas Tree team lead, District Ranger, Willamette National Forest, Willamette National Forest

As I reflect on the journey this year’s U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree undertook, from Oregon to our nation’s capital, I am overwhelmed with pride at what our “Tree Team” accomplished and I am filled with gratitude for everyone who helped us get there.

This event would not have been possible without the wonderful team of people assembled; the support of the ranger district, forest, region and Washington office; the cities throughout Oregon and the people we met along the way; as well as our partners and sponsors.

This trip was truly an undertaking of shared stewardship, and I am thankful and blessed to have been part of this project that has left so much joy at each stop along the way. This tree team is, in my opinion, the best team of people ever assembled—a team that solved any problem it faced, and did so multiple times along the way. We worked with over 60 sponsors and two partners, Choose Outdoors and Travel Oregon. And along our cross-country trip, we met people who welcomed us as family—in Sweet Home, Springfield, Oakridge, Baker City and other Oregon stops, and in Pocatello, Idaho; Laramie, Wyoming; St. Louis, Missouri; and other locations along this “reverse” Oregon Trail.

What I will most remember about this journey is the joy and happiness we encountered at every everywhere we went. There are not many times in a person’s life where they get to experience 20 days of joy in a row. Yet we met joyous faces at every stop, people who were joyful at being part of this beautiful event, and thankful we stopped in their towns.

The people of Oregon contributed over 10,000 handmade ornaments to this project, as well as lovely, quilted tree skirts. They kept us in their thoughts and prayers as we traversed the country. I saw a unity across the entirety of America that sprang from this project. Through this project, I was reminded of the joy and common ground to be found among people from all across the nation. Tears of happiness flowed when this noble fir tree, a gift from the state of Oregon, was illuminated and presented to the people of the United States.

Photo: Flat-bed truck delivering the 2018 Capitol Christmas Tree. US Capitol seen in the background. DaylightMolly Juillerat—Deputy District Ranger, Middlefork Ranger District, Willamette National Forest

Selecting the Capitol Christmas Tree was a group effort. By asking forest employees and the public to help find our tree, we were able to encourage people to go out to the forest and explore. From the suggestions we received, we narrowed down the prospective trees to five; the final selection was made by a representative of the Architect of the Capitol.

As we traveled cross-country, we were able to meet face-to-face with the people we serve, and we learned we had to share our mission. Most people who live in Oregon are familiar with the Forest Service, but not everyone is so lucky. Every member of the team had multiple conversations about who we are and what we do. I spoke to people in Harrison, Ohio, who had never seen someone in a Forest Service uniform and wanted to know about us.

These conversations gave us a chance to talk about forest management and explain our principles about logging, fire management, wilderness and everything in between. People were concerned we had cut down a tree, especially as they assumed it must be an old tree due to its height. We surprised them by explaining we have millions of trees like this, and that it wasn’t particularly old at all, just 35.

It was amazing how traveling with a tree could lead to so many conversations.

Photo: 2018 Capitol Christmas Tree; White House seen in the background. NightTim Lahey—forest products program manager, Pacific Northwest Regional Office

The cross-country trek of the Capitol Christmas tree had our team stopping in nearly 30 towns, reaching nearly 30,000 people directly and countless others on social media. The most common question we received was “Why are you here, and why did you choose our town?”

It was amazing to speak directly to so many people about who we are and what we do. I want to share just some anecdotes from our journey.

Soda Springs, Idaho, was originally not a stop. I was feeling very guilty about not including them, but as fate would have it, Soda Springs emailed us requesting a stop. Of all the towns in the nation, this one of 3,000 people reached out to us. At the stop, I was recounting the story to a couple who grew up in Soda Springs, moved away for careers and have now moved back to this small town in Idaho. They turned out to be the people who sparked the town to request that we stop there on our tour.

At a stop in The Dalles, Oregon, a woman was visibly emotional over the idea of the Capitol Christmas Tree coming to her town. She couldn’t believe that her town over all others was chosen as a stop along the route.

In Independence, Missouri, a couple was talking to me about the route, asking questions about the historical significance of the stops we chose. When I mentioned our stop in Fort Bridger, Wyoming, they lit up. Jim Bridger was laid to rest in Independence, just a couple of miles away, and visiting the burial site of Jim Bridger was a fitting way to end our journey on the Oregon Trail.

We met so many people, and shared so many moments, I can’t recount them all. I think a lot about the thousands of kids we met and connected with along the way. We all have our personal reasons for pursuing a career with the Forest Service. Sometimes it is just a small spark that creates that passion for public lands and ultimately the next generation of Forest Service employees.

Editor's note: See photos of the lighting ceremony in D.C. and the cross country journey beginning in the Willamette National Forest.