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Alaska Christmas tree is about to head to the US Capitol, with lots of corporate support

WASHINGTON -- A 74-foot Lutz spruce tree will soon make its way from Alaska's Chugach National Forest to adorn the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol building, ferried along by more than half a million dollars in corporate donations.

"The way that the Capitol Christmas Tree operates is with a significant amount of private-sector support," said Bruce Ward, president of Choose Outdoors, a nonprofit that solicits and coordinates donations for the annual project. Nearly $500,000 of that comes from "in-kind" donations -- the truck to transport it, and the driver's time, fuel, hotel rooms and cranes, Ward said. Companies have donated $140,000 in cash, including $50,000 from Shell, Ward said.

"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 were provided from nearby Maryland for the years following, until 1970, when the Speaker of the House turned the project over to the U.S. Forest Service.

This will be the first tree from Alaska -- hailing from the nation's most northern and western national forest. The Lutz spruce is roughly 90 years old, a hybrid between a white spruce and Sitka spruce that has been in Alaska longer than Alaska has been represented in the nation's capital.

There are about 50 companies involved. Shell donated $50,000 and about $2,500 worth of fuel to move the tree cross-country. Kenai River Brewing Co. is donating cases of beer for a reception in Washington, D.C.

Ward's Colorado-based group has been orchestrating the tree's corporate backing since 2012, since the federal government can't solicit such donations.

Some of it comes from person-to-person outreach, he said.

Shell, for instance, became involved when Ward, on a tree-related trip, stopped in at a Rotary Club International meeting in Anchorage and found himself seated next to a fellow Rotarian "that happened to have a connection with Shell," he said. "She made a phone call, and the next thing I know, I had a meeting."

The effort has also drawn $10,000 from SkyBitz for a website to track the tree's progress across the U.S. Another $25,000 came from pro-wood construction group reThink WOOD. Alaska Airlines provided flight vouchers. Alaska Crane is providing cranes for the tree-cutting. Totem is shipping the tree from Anchorage to Seattle. Kenworth donated a truck, and Lynden Transport provided a driver.

Certified Forest Service employee Dan Osborn will cut down the tree -- near Seward -- on Oct. 27, with help from donated cranes and a local contracting company that is building the trail.

Generally the Forest Service does not reveal the tree's exact location ahead of time, as to avoid the threat of vandalism. But it's not a huge concern, according to Ted Bechtol, superintendent of the Capitol Grounds, who has selected the winning tree for 11 years. A candidate tree was lost to a beaver in Vermont one year, he told the Forest Service.

Bechtol flew to Alaska in May to select the 74-foot tree -- on the tall end for the annual tree -- from six options offered by local forest employees.

The options were picked based on the ability to remove them with "minimal trail building," height and 360-degree quality. The "branches had to be fairly even looking on all sides," said Chugach National Forest spokeswoman Mona Spargo. "It had to be pretty."

Chatter among some political circles has been that the Forest Service excused itself from time-consuming environmental review for a logging road required to bring the tree from the forest.

It holds a kernel of truth: Spargo said it's less of a logging road and more of a temporary path. The Forest Service looked for potential trees close to main roads, and evaluated the potential for retrieval without too much interruption of the surrounding environment, and the ability to "fill" the path after tree has been removed.

The project was granted a "categorical exclusion" under the National Environmental Policy Act, meaning the federal government found that the tree-cutting wouldn't have a "significant" impact on the human or natural environment, and thus would not require a complicated environmental impact statement, Spargo said.

The tree is located about 300 feet off a main road, near Seward.

"One of the reasons we picked it was because it wasn't far off the road," Spargo said. Rehabilitation efforts should allow the path to soon return to its "natural state," she said.

The Chugach is providing the main tree for the Capitol grounds, but 75 additional trees that will go to various congressional and administration offices around Washington, D.C., won't be coming from Alaska, Spago said. The Forest Service didn't find much in the way of tree farmers in the 49th state, so they found tree growers in the Pacific Northwest to provide the rest, Spago said.

Four or five Chugach National Forest employees will make the trip to Washington for the tree's installment and lighting, Spago said.

They'll be joined by quite a few others, including sponsors and a local band.

Part of Shell's involvement will include bringing several young people from the North Slope, and Alaska's senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski is holding an essay contest to bring an elementary school-aged child to Washington, D.C., to participate in the tree lighting.

But just when the tree will be lit remains a question bogged down by Washington politics.

"The intriguing thing about the lighting of the tree this year" is that the decision about when the tree will be lit is still up in the air, and may remain so when it is cut down next week, Ward said

Traditionally, the date is chosen by the speaker of the House. But with Speaker John Boehner's decision to step down from his post at the end of the month, everyone is waiting on word from his unknown replacement.

The logistical details are complex and prolific.

Getting the tree to the Capitol from Chugach National Forest requires some first-time considerations.

A special "bladder" is being built to keep the tree -- which uses 20 to 40 gallons of water a day -- hydrated during its three days on ship. A special heating element has been added to keep the tree from freezing on the ship too, Ward said.

The tree, ferried by Lynden Transport driver John Schank, will make stops in Seward and Anchorage before it hops on a ship to Seattle. From there, the tree will stop in Missoula, Montana; Rapid City, South Dakota; South Bend, Indiana; Findlay, Ohio; Chillicothe, Ohio; and Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

Schank, who traditionally delivers oil industry supplies, was chosen for his 37-year accident-free driving record -- a feat for someone who typically runs the route between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay twice a week.

The tree needs to be at Joint Base Andrews, just outside Washington, D.C., by Nov. 18, Ward said. Then at 4 a.m. Nov. 20, it'll be moved, via convoy, to the Capitol.

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