Minnesota spruce heads east to become Capitol Christmas Tree

The tree cutting began by securing lines
The Capitol Christmas Tree cutting ceremony began with securing lines to the crane.
Matthew McLaughlin / For MPR New

The Capitol Christmas Tree began its 2,000 mile journey Wednesday from northern Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest through seven states to Washington, D.C.

Photos: See the grand tree come down

Half a dozen busloads of bundled onlookers gathered in a forest clearing down miles of muddy dirt road east of Cass Lake to see a set of cranes lift the 88-foot white spruce onto a semi truck.

The U.S. Forest Service has supplied the Capitol building's west lawn with Christmas trees since 1970. The agency cuts these festive behemoths from national forests across the country.

There are a lot of good pine trees in the United States and providing one is a huge honor, said Chippewa National Forest Mike Theune, who led the Christmas tree effort this year.

"This is like winning the Super Bowl," he said, "Or maybe an Academy Award."

That honor was somewhat lost on Jim Scheff, the man who had the starring role. Scheff, who runs a Marcell, Minnesota-based logging crew, was named logger of the year by the Minnesota Sustainable Forestry Initiative for the safety and efficiency of his operations. He made the cut to bring the big tree down.

"I knew it was a big deal," he said. "I didn't know it was going to be this big of a deal."

Scheff walked around in a big orange jacket and thick chainsaw resistant chaps as foresters got the tree ready. Strangers asked for photos.

"Most loggers become loggers because they like working in the middle of nowhere, basically alone," said Ray Higgins, one of Scheff's friends in the crowd. "Now look at Jim. People are all over him."

The last time Chippewa National Forest supplied a Capitol tree was in 1992. Then, sometime last year, Theune said his forest was chosen again, to supply another tree for 2014.

A huge honor, yes, but he said it's also a high pressure assignment. The tree has to be just right.

Theune charged the foresters with nominating their favorite trees. In February, forester Justin Tabaka was scouting for a planting site when he saw this year's white spruce.

"First thing I saw was the girth," he said. "There aren't many spruce trees with a 30-inch diameter. Not here, anyway."

Tabaka was in the crowd Wednesday, watching with family and getting slapped on the back by other foresters. Later, he'll fly out to Washington to see the tree installed.

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe spiritual leader Larry Aitken led a blessing ceremony, lighting up a long-stem pipe and waving smoke over the tree and the crowd as a local tribal drum circle performed.

"This is the tree of life," he said. "It brings this whole nation together, and it came from right here in Minnesota."

Scheff revved up his 30-inch bar Husqvarna chainsaw and laid into the massive trunk. In a minute, all 88 feet of spruce floated under the cranes and swung over the semi truck, one step closer to its final place of honor.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is raising money to send 180 students, teachers and community members to Washington for the lighting ceremony in early December.

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