Safely Hunting for Your Christmas Trees the Montana Way
There's probably no better way to celebrate our Montana holiday traditions than to jump into the "Family Truckster" SUV and head into the woods to find a Christmas tree.
But making sure you're legal, and you don't get stuck or run into trouble, should also be part of the tradition.
First, on the legal side. The Forest Service offers Christmas affordable tree permits which can be picked up at local ranger stations, or purchased online.
The permits available at offices of both the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests are available for $5 each, with families able to purchase up to three permits. You can also purchase tree permits online, which adds a transaction fee of $2.50 per permit. And through the Every Kid Outdoors (EKO) program, fourth graders can receive a free permit, if they visit the program's website and obtain a voucher.
Make sure you know where to cut a tree
On the Lolo National Forest, your permit allows you to cut trees on public lands, with the exception of the Blue Mountain and Pattee Canyon Recreation Areas, or the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. You shouldn't cut trees on private land, wilderness areas, designated recreation sites, existing tree farms, or active logging areas, especially if they've been replanted.
You also should cut trees visible from major roads, within 150 feet of streams or creeks, or other "well-used areas." Trees should be no more than 12 feet high, and 6 inches at the stump, and you shouldn't "top" trees.
Tree permits should be displayed on the dashboard of your vehicle.
You need to be extra cautious because of the early snow
You also need to be safe. With the early snow this year, many of the usually accessible tree locations might already be snowed in. Be aware of your vehicle's capabilities and your capacity for driving on backcountry roads, especially after last week's thaw created some very icy conditions.
It's not a bad idea to carry chains
Many times in the backcountry I've seen even the most capable four-wheel-drive get into trouble, especially on roads that suddenly climb, or have a sharp turn above a ravine. At that point, even a winch may not make a difference. That's when the tire chains are priceless.
If you're not comfortable driving Forest Service roads, consider riding with a friend or relative. Or at least, travel with someone that could help you if problems come up.
Make sure someone has a shovel
Be aware of weather conditions, and carry tools and the right map and clothing for cold weather. And make sure someone knows your plans since many of the Forest Service roads aren't in cell phone coverage.