SEWARD -- The 2015 U.S. Capitol Christmas tree was felled Tuesday afternoon on the outskirts of this Southcentral Alaska harbor community, the first step of a 6,000-mile journey that will eventually take it to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.
The 74-foot Lutz spruce, a hybrid between a Sitka and white spruce, hails from the Chugach National Forest, the country's most northern and western national forest. On Tuesday morning the 90-year-old tree stood about 300 feet off the Seward Highway. The surrounding area was cleared and filled in with dirt in order to support two cranes that secured the spruce estimated to weigh about 7,500 pounds.
The spruce was found by Amanda Villwock, Natural Resources Specialist with the Chugach National Forest, who said she began searching for the "perfect" tree last October.
"The tree symbolizes more than just the tree itself, you know, especially coming from Alaska," Villwock said. "We're taking pride in our state and sharing that with the entire country," she said.
At Tuesday's event, the crowd included U.S. Forest Service employees, media and residents from nearby communities who came out to see the spruce cut and loaded carefully onto a flat-bed trailer lined with "cradles" to support the trunk.
Although the actual cutting of the tree took only a moment, events leading up to the felling took a year to plan and execute.
"The People's Tree," as it is known, has been an annual fixture on the Capitol grounds since 1964, when a Pennsylvania tree was planted there. It died three years later, and more trees were provided from nearby Maryland in the years that followed. In 1970, the Speaker of the House turned the project over to the U.S. Forest Service.
This will be the first tree from Alaska to become a part of the tradition, and the first time a Lutz spruce will be displayed as the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree. This is also the first time the tree will be visible during a community celebration – slated for Tuesday evening in Seward -- before it is wrapped and boxed for its journey, Villwock said.
Finding Alaska's perfect Christmas tree was "actually a little more complicated than you'd expect," Villwock said.
Villwock was searching for a tree at least 70 feet tall and had a perfect conical shape, with branches dispersed evenly throughout the length of the tree, she said. She needed to find something near a road, but much of the forest along the road system is state land, not national land, Villwock said.
Villwock eventually picked six trees as possible contenders, and the 74-foot Lutz spruce was chosen by Ted Bechtol, superintendent of Capitol grounds, who flew to Alaska to choose the tree, she said.
A ceremony before the cutting included speeches by Seward Mayor Jean Bardarson, who said that the community was "again humbled to find ourselves in the national spotlight," referencing a September visit from President Barack Obama.
Terri Marceron, Chugach National Forest supervisor, thanked the corporate sponsors that she said supplied around $650,000 in monetary and in-kind donations.
Jon Ross, a member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, burned sage as others gave their speeches before approaching the podium with an eagle feather in hand. He told the crowd that he had smudged the tree with sage and talked with the spruce. "I asked permission," he said, for it to be felled.
Ross then gave a short blessing in Dena'ina Athabascan. "We thank this tree for giving its life," he said afterward in English.
Chugach National Forest project director Mona Spargo blew an air horn to signal the start of the cutting.
Chugach National Forest engine captain Dan Osborn was tasked with cutting the tree. He called the event a "once-in-a-career opportunity."
Despite extensive tree-felling experience, Osborn said he was "a little bit" nervous Tuesday morning.
"The tree part I'm not worried about at all," he said. "It's just the whole other crowd and everything."
The felling went off without a hitch. As the final cut went through the tree, it bounced upward, branches jostling as the crowd gasped. One crane secured the top of the tree, keeping it vertical; a second rope was then tied along the bottom, and it was slowly maneuvered into a horizontal position. Crews cut off bottom branches and around 8 feet of the trunk as they continued to ease it into place aboard the trailer.
The crowd began to disperse as crews continued working on the spruce.
The tree will be on display during a Seward community celebration at the Alaska SeaLife Center from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, after which the spruce will be boxed up.
On Oct. 30, the tree will stop at Moose Pass Trail Lake Lodge from 10 to 11 a.m., and then in Anchorage at Cabela's from 5 to 8 p.m. On Oct. 31, the tree will be in downtown Anchorage from noon to 4 p.m. at the Trick or Treat Street event.
The tree will then be shipped from the Port of Anchorage to Seattle. It will be trucked across the United States, with community events planned along the way. Between sea and land, the entire journey is about 6,000 miles, said Chris Lampshire, Chugach patrol captain.
Villwock and others will join the spruce for the journey in Seattle. Villwock will ensure that a 60-gallon water bladder stays full and the tree remains in good health before it arrives at Joint Base Andrews, just outside Washington, D.C., by Nov. 18. Then at 4 a.m. Nov. 20, it'll be moved via convoy to the Capitol.