2015 Holiday Guide: In search of the perfect tree | SteamboatToday.com

2015 Holiday Guide: In search of the perfect tree

Suzy and Henry Magill use a sled to move the family Christmas tree from where it was cut on Gore Pass to the family car, which was parked nearby.
John F. Russell

— Even at 19 degrees, wearing down jackets atop two layers of long johns and trudging through deep snow near Rabbit Ears Pass, 9-year-old Alena Rossi and her younger sister, 7-year-old Shea, were excited to be outside on a family Christmas tree-finding adventure.

The fun part of the recent fall day was playing in the snow with two dogs and nine extended family members across three generations.

“We were playing maniac crash people in the snow. It was cold but pretty,” said Shea, sure to add that her “grandmom” didn’t roll in the snow but that they did see baby bunny tracks.

Mom Liza Rossi, a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks & Wildlife, said there was probably too much family laughter to see any animals larger than birds – her conservation focus. The family traveled on snowshoes, cross-country skis or in heavy boots, and the trees were pulled out on sleds.

“It’s always really fun,” said Liza, who has been cutting a family Christmas tree locally for 14 years. “It is something non-commercial about the holiday. You go out to have an adventure in the woods for kind of a treasure hunt because you never know what you are going to find.”

For many local families, buying a $10 Christmas tree cutting permit from the local U.S. Forest Service ranger district and heading to the woods for a holiday evergreen is an annual tradition and a non-negotiable time for the family to be together. Parents often continue the custom their parents started with them decades earlier.

Steamboat Springs restaurant owners Lynne Romeo and her husband, Massimo Erspamer, started cutting a Christmas tree as a family outing when their two sons were in elementary school. The family has memories of teasing, laughing, sledding and trying to push mom in the snow. They have discovered gargantuan aspen trees and a bear’s den with paw prints leading out.

“It’s one of the best days together,” Romeo said. “It’s just a really special day for us to go up as a family especially as they (our sons) get older.”

The family recently repeated their 14-year tradition in the woods north of Hahn’s Peak. The tables are turned now as the strapping college-age boys break trail for their parents.

Local families have cut trees in heavy snowfall and winds or at zero degrees. Romeo said last year their outing took place during a huge storm with thigh deep power, so they did not trudge too far into the forest.

The Forest Service provides a lengthy list of safety suggestions with each permit, and information is available online at

http://www.fs.usda.gov/goto/mbr/christmastrees. Some of the rules include: choose a tree growing with other trees in a cluster and leave the “perfect” trees to grow; check maps to make sure cutting is on national forest land; avoid beetle-killed tree areas on high wind days; do not cut trees greater than 20 feet tall; and do not cut within 100 feet of any road or trail or within 200 feet of any developed areas such as overlooks or campgrounds.

This year, Romeo said, her family went out on a “beautiful, blue sky day.”

“It was Monday, so nobody was up there. So we feel like we had the forest to ourselves,” said Romeo, who remembers her mom bundling up the kids and packing a big box lunch with lots of hot chocolate and marshmallows for tree-cutting outings when Romeo was a teen.

Although state and federal agencies are part of the local ReTree effort to plant new trees in targeted, sparse areas, the Christmas tree-cutting permits are issued for areas where tree thinning is needed.

“It actually can be a good thing to thin some of the trees to make the other trees healthier in the long term by reducing the competition for nutrients, water and sunlight,” biologist Rossi explained. “High in the National Forest trees grow naturally with sunlight, snowfall and rain, and nutrients provided by the ecosystem. These trees are sustainably produced as opposed to some trees grown on tree farms that often take a bunch of added water and nutrients, and then are driven long distances to be sold.”

Mirko Erspamer, 22, said the tree cutting and decorating day is a good way for the busy family to find time to be together. They look for a six-foot evergreen with sturdy branches to hold ornaments. They bring home any surplus boughs to make wreathes. Erspamer said he enjoys the mountain scenery and hiking around for a few hours to find the right tree.

Back safely at home, the families have the key task of keeping the cut tree stable in a holder. Then they begin the annual tradition of remembering past Christmas times by going through years of collected ornaments.

An important note, some areas of the forest, including Wilderness areas on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, are off limits to tree cutting. Make sure to gather complete information from the Ranger District office employees in Steamboat Springs, Yampa or Walden.

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