This year, we cut our own Christmas tree. Here's how you can too



These days, getting out of the house and into the great outdoors - to a place where there are no other people around - is more in vogue than ever in recent memory.


On our way to buy a Christmas tree this year, my girlfriend and I stumbled upon a new way to have some fun winter adventure and get one for free.


Here’s how it all went down. 


With the Holidays approaching, we decided on a spot in the living room but, once we were ready to find the fir to fill that prime real estate by the TV, we remembered the price tag of last year’s coniferous Christmas timber and did not look forward to forking out that kind of cash once again. 


Add to that, the situation of dually having to deal with a Christmas tree shortage throughout North America and higher-than-normal (likely) COVID-driven demand meant we were ready to conclude that we were going to be paying more this year for a lesser quality tree. 


We also assumed we’d have to get out there and get one sooner, rather than later.


We were right. 


It was nearing the end of November when many tree sellers were urging customers not to wait until it’s too late to get a tree. Their message was clear: there was a shortage on trees dating back to the Great Recession. 


The housing bubble’s burst and the market-crushing recession that followed in 2008, led some Christmas tree growers to scale down their planting operations for a few years. 


Trees planted then, took ten years mature and what we're left with is a shorter supply right here and now.


It just made sense that finding a tree in 2020 would be more difficult than in any other year.


Of course COVID’s merciless spread in Alberta and the health restrictions that are meant to slow it, keeps us all in our homes and not gathering at another house for Christmas celebrations like, perhaps, we usually would. 


Some houses that would normally go treeless because the family is spending the holiday at the grandparents’, will this year need a tree. 


In Edmonton, shoppers got the hop on buying trees early. According to reports, Ellerslie Gift & Garden had sold a third of its 700 trees by December 3 and IKEA, forecasting higher than average demand, brought in almost 3,000 trees from Nova Scotia - about 1,200 more than last year. 


With many in the city also decorating earlier than usual to bring some holiday cheer into their pandemic experience, you probably already have a tree beaming its Yuletide joy into your home. 


But this year’s crop leaves something to be desired. Grand Firs, the fullest tree you can buy - considered by many to be the Cadillac of Christmas trees - are few and far between. 


Did you know that if you’re alright with a Honda Civic and don’t require that high end, carefully pruned beefed-up branch coverage, you could have gone into the forest and cut your own tree for free? 


It’s called a Personal Use Forest Products Permit (PUFPP). 


Timber harvested with the permit is limited to three Christmas trees, 20 tree transplants, or five cubic meters (1.5 cords or “three level truckloads” according to the province) of firewood or roundwood.


PUFPP’s have been available for decades under the names “Forest Product Tag” or “TM66”. 


Just this November, the provincial government removed the $5 fee, which in the past has paid the government close to $100,000. 


The permit is good for 30 days. You can get one here


Getting this permit to harvest your own timber is the law, because it helps the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to track how many trees are harvested. 


Armed with this new information and our previous price-driven worries, we set a course for a winter woods adventure to go and bring back our own Christmas tree from the forest. 


Expectations of finding a perfectly manicured tree, like those you'd find at a Tree Lot were obviously, far gone from our sight. 


Instead what we were looking for was more of a classic look. A tree that might be a little rough around the edges but, would still look great with some baubles and other shiny things on it.


The first hurdle however, was that we would have to drive out of the city a little bit to the Edson Forest Area to do our harvest. 


A PUFPP can only be used in designated areas. 


Alberta has been divided into two main areas: the Green Area, which is the forested portion covering most of northern Alberta as well as the mountain and foothills areas along Alberta’s western boundary and the White Area, which is the settled portion in the populated central, southern and Peace River areas. 


From David A. Locky, MacEwan University. Study available here.



Edmonton and area are part of the province’s White Area which is not actively managed for forestry permits. Therefore, harvesting is only allowed in the Green Area. 


For detailed maps of where you can harvest, click here. 


We made a day of it. A thermos of tea, some packed lunches, a backroads map book, a 4x4 truck, some true crime podcasts and we were set. 





Once our recon of all the off-shoots from the main Forest Road were complete, we picked a spot, hiked into the tree-line and emerged a short time later with a beautiful Christmas tree. 


Success!



So why is this so easy? How am I allowed to go cut down trees or gather 1.5 cords of wood for free?


“[These] permits help preserve our forests for generations to come,” a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry told me, “by keeping track of the amount of trees harvested, outlining rules to be followed and ensuring that public harvesting is done safely.


“Each forest area has an allowed volume that can be accounted for in the process. The province will continue to monitor the number of permits issued and ensure these volumes have been addressed appropriately.”


Not only is the government likely banking on not a lot of people being willing to take the trip, there is a failsafe added that once a certain amount of trees are harvested, permits will no longer be issued. 


Harvesting without a permit can lead you to financial penalties. 


It's worth mentioning again that getting a PUFPP is the law and is required before removing anything from the forest for personal use (unless you are random camping in properly designated areas). 


The penalty for failure to produce a permit, or for selling Crown timber, ranges from a minimum of $50 to over $1,000 depending the amount of timber you harvested. 


Obeying the rules can lead to some great benefits though, and some cheap Christmas trees and firewood.





After our tree was in strapped down and we hit the road, my mind immediately went to loading up the truck with some firewood from an old slash pile. We could dry it out for a year or so and use for back yard fires and camping trips. 


But wait, am I allowed to just go onto a slash pile and do this?


“This is specific to the forest area, but express permission would be required from the forest company to enter their operating area,” the ministry said. “There are legal requirements forest companies must meet even after slash piles are left. Entering those piles without permission or direction could put those companies at risk.” 


Basically, any activity that happens on a forestry company-owned slash pile is their responsibility. So if a member of the public with a PUFP permit enters one of these areas and leaves a mess, for example, the company could be held legally responsible by the Ministry. It’s definitely something to be aware of. 


Firewood can also be harvested from deadfall and you can fell trees that fit the permit’s terms and conditions as well. 


The Ministry encourages anyone looking to make use of this unique way to get in some outdoors adventure (for family Christmas tree or firewood gathering) to call their local Forest Area Office, of the office in the area they plan to is it before heading out. That way, you can get the most up-to-date information on road conditions and tips on where the best harvest areas might be. 


I think we just started a new Christmas tradition.


The end result




Mike Carter reporting for Yeg City
Write Mike at mikecarterwrites@gmail.com


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