Honor Thy Sawyer

By his own admission, Montana sawyer, Pete Tallmadge thought surely someone else would be a  better choice for the job.

“When Kirsten Kaiser the 3 Rivers District Ranger called and asked if I would consider being the sawyer for the 2017 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, I just about said ‘no’,” he told a crowd of neighbors, friends and family near his home in Troy, Montana. “To tell you the truth, I immediately thought of 3 or 4 other sawyers that she should call instead.”

But the tall gentle man rose to the occasion and humbly accepted the honor. Calling upon five generations of Montana logging tradition and skill, Tallmadge felled an 80-foot Engelmann Spruce in the Kootenai National Forest on November 7, 2017.  Local members of the U.S. Forest Service and volunteer contractors from Montana Crane Services hoisted the 13,000 pound giant on to a massive wheeled transport provided by Hale Trailer.  The tree was hauled from the harvest site by a customized big rig vehicle donated by the Kenworth Trucking Company. Sponsored by the Whitewood Transport Company, Montana truck driver Larry Spiekermeier, with more than 1 million accident-free miles over a 40-year career, was tasked to drive the tree all the way to Washington D.C. There it will grace the U.S. Capitol grounds for all the world to see. This remarkable initiative of public and private cooperation, orchestrated by the nonprofit Choose Outdoors, has brought together both individuals and institutions to share in the delivery of a wonderful gift from our public land to the American people.

“I have been given the opportunity to not only represent myself and my family,  I’ve been given the chance to represent the timber industry, this community, and the great state of Montana,” Tallmadge said. “We have been given the privilege of providing the “Peoples Tree” to the rest of the country. This tree is a gift from you….this tree is a gift from us….This tree is a gift to everyone who calls the United States of America home.”

Like several others in this crowd of fellow citizens I got a bit choked up as Tallmadge shared these inspiring words. As the official photographer and storyteller of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree it is my honor and privilege to illustrate and put into words many of the intangible sentiments that revolve around this unique annual tradition. Embedded as the resident journalist of this project though, I find myself a bit too close to the unassailable virtues of common purpose, national unity and sheer joy that are so much a part of this great adventure. So I was a bit taken aback when I received this message on Facebook.

“There is no honor in this. Such a HUGE waste of money,” wrote Charley Willett of Neihart, Montana. “The Tree Tour has been going since 2010, and makes no sense. Oh let’s spend thousands of dollars parading a dead tree around the US only for it to end up on the other side of the country. I wonder how many sick people this money could help, or how many homeless people stay homeless because of this. It may not be that many, but i can say people are way more important then trees.”

Actually the tradition of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree dates back almost 60 years to the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1958 Ike lit the lights of another Engelmann spruce, which also came from the Kootenai National Forest, delivered to Washington D.C. by train. At our stop in Libby Montana, Patty Rambo, a teacher of art at the local high school presented the transport team of the 2017 Tree with a hand-painted banner to mark its origins. Beaming with pride she smiled as a tear rolled down her cheek. Leaning close she whispered in my ear. “I remember the Eisenhower tree. The one on the train,” she said. “I was ten years old.”

Since 1970 the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree has been delivered to Washington D.C., ordered by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The Architect of the Capitol instructs the U.S. Forest Service to provide the People’s Tree from one of the many national forests across the U.S. A different region is selected each year. It’s not at all uncommon for those unfamiliar with this project to misunderstand how it works. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine that this monumental undertaking could possibly take place without an overwhelming outlay of cash from the federal government. As it happens, by law this enterprise can be financially back only by private donors. Every year Choose Outdoors raises funds and organizes all the necessary contractors to donate their services. So it’s very important that we are clear in letting the general public know that this tree is delivered through the collective efforts of ordinary citizens who cherish our public land.

“Charley, if this helps, please understand that this project is funded exclusively through voluntary contributions of in-kind donations from the truck and trailer to the driver,” I wrote in reply on Facebook. “No tax dollars are used in this endeavor. Even the sawyer donated his time and skills to make this gift possible. The People’s Tree represents the natural heritage of all Americans. Along this journey we see a great outpouring of support for the many homeless and food insecure people in every community. The charitable spirit of the American people is as much a part of this mission as our efforts to celebrate our national forests. Though we are taking it to Washington DC we delivering this Tree as a gift from Montana for everyone in the nation to enjoy.”

Truthfully, I am amazed by the spirit of generosity that flows through every moment of this journey. Mile after mile across the American landscape from one community to the next we see ordinary people coming out to celebrate all that we share in common. Hardworking men and women donate their time, physical energy and financial resources to turn the notion of Christmas into reality. I watched as at each stop along the way the many who gathered, individuals from all walks of life, took at least a few moments to acknowledge the needs of others by collecting food, clothing and toys to benefit those less fortunate. The People’s Tree is far more than some lifeless spruce on display to entertain the privileged. It is the embodiment of the American ideal, which revers the conservation of our natural resources  on public land while serving the collective interests of all people. Rising above party politics or religious affiliation, the People’s Tree inspires a non-partisan opportunity to look beyond the desires of the few and see how we all might work to provide for the many.

The people of Montana, including Mr. Willette, can take a great deal of pride in delivering this gift to the nation. Pete Tallmadge in particular exemplifies the simple concept of giving of one’s own natural abilities and carefully honed skills toward the betterment of our national community of citizens. We must honor this sawyer, along with all the other private contractors and public servants whose dedicated efforts as professionals improve the lives of everyone who calls America their home.

Though direct financial contributions to charitable organizations would certainly serve the interests of the poor, this initiative as a whole provides an exponentially more beneficial outcome. Through this collaborative effort we elevate the cause of giving across many different spheres of influence, throughout every community we visit and to those we engage online through social media. Through the photographs and videos I create and the stories we share, the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Tour is a modern tradition that celebrates our national spirit. Though I am by means wealthy, nor do I possess powers of effluence or authority, it is indeed my privilege and honor to share in this mission to bring the People’s Tree to the American public.

Coverage of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Tour is made possible thanks to the support of Choose Outdoors

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Author:James

I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.