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NMSU Tree Expert Helps New Mexicans Donate Trees to Washington

MORA COUNTY - The conversation among forestry professionals in a remote, high-country woodland last month sounded more like the family chatter at a neighborhood tree lot during the weeks before Christmas.

New Mexico State University professor John Harrington, second from left, leads U.S. Forest Service employees as they bind a future Christmas tree to prepare it for a trip to Washington, D.C., where it would be set up for the holidays in a federal office. (12/12/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

"That's really nice. That's the fullness we're looking for."
"This is a tough decision."
"That is a gorgeous tree."

But the experts from New Mexico State University and the U.S. Forest Service were choosing trees from the Bartley family ranch to grace dining rooms and offices in Washington, D.C., rather than living rooms and dens in Albuquerque.

By lunchtime, the crew had gathered six stately trees to be used in the Senate private dining hall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture building, the office of Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and other locations in the capital city.

Tree farmers from across the state participated in the 2005 Capitol Christmas Tree project, which required more than 60 "companion" trees to accompany the "People's Tree," an 80-foot Engelmann spruce selected from the Santa Fe National Forest near Cuba, N.M. The spruce is now displayed on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol, fully decorated after a special lighting ceremony Dec. 8.

"Folks are really eager to participate," said Reuben Montes, a rural community assistance coordinator for the Forest Service's Collaborative Forest Restoration Program. Montes helped secure companion trees to meet each request from Washington. New Mexico's senators, for example, asked for piņon trees, which were harvested from a tree farm near Pie Town.

NMSU professor John Harrington, who supervises the university's Mora Research Center and is chair of the Southwestern Section of the Society of American Foresters, works with tree farmers statewide. Donors he works with are members of the New Mexico Tree Farm program. Additional companion trees were solicited from New Mexico Christmas tree retailers.

The companion tree project follows the thinking behind forest management plans Harrington helps prepare for cooperating landowners: Thinning the forest can reduce fire danger, improve forest health and generate income for entrepreneurs who sell Christmas trees. New Mexico Christmas trees bring in about $1.1 million each holiday season, according to an NMSU study.

Harrington said the conversation on the ranch was a good illustration of the current Christmas tree market.

"Not everyone's vision of the perfect tree is the same," he said. Some people prefer sheared, shaped, plantation-grown trees while others choose more natural, wild trees that show the character of New Mexico forests.

Each of the companion trees is now displayed in Washington with a placard that tells which tree farm harvested the tree. For rancher John Bartley, the donation is well worth the publicity and education he hopes will take place when people see the trees from New Mexico.

"Everybody thinks we're a desert," he said.

The Bartleys harvest about 600 trees a year from their 4,000-acre ranch, so a lot of New Mexicans already are familiar with their trees, which are sold at lots in Albuquerque, Clovis and Carlsbad. Perhaps their most popular annual project is supplying more than 100 7- to 10-foot trees that are used to build one huge tree at Old Town in Albuquerque.

"These are trees that don't have to be perfect," said Editha Bartley, John's mother. "It makes one, giant, full Christmas tree." The project is a chance to thin some of the ranch's misshapen trees. "The reject trees should be trimmed as well as the beautiful trees," she said. "It's like weeding the garden."

John Bartley feels a sense of satisfaction as the trailers are loaded and the six trees are marked with their destinations.

"To me, it's an awesome feeling," he said. "This is really neat, to give something to the nation."