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NMSU Tree Expert Will Help Nation's Christmas Tree Look Its Best

MORA - The nation's Christmas tree will receive expert care from a New Mexico State University scientist for its monthlong trip from the Santa Fe National Forest to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

John Harrington, left, superintendent of NMSU's Mora Research Center, and Mora County rancher John Bartley select a tree for the 2005 Capitol Holiday Tree project. New Mexicans donated a massive, 80-foot Christmas tree for the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol, as well as dozens of smaller "companion" trees for federal offices in Washington, D.C. Across the state, forest landowners like Bartley are participating in the companion tree project. (09/09/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

John Harrington, superintendent of NMSU's Mora Research Center and chair of the Southwestern Section of the Society of American Foresters, will use special climbing gear to scale the 80-foot Engelmann spruce just before it is cut by a U.S. Forest Service crew. Harrington will apply an antidesiccant to keep the "People's Tree" from drying out during its tour of the state and cross-country trip to Washington, D.C., where it will be decorated with 10,000 lights and more than 4,000 ornaments. He'll apply a second treatment immediately after the giant is felled.

"It will be on the road three to four weeks, so it will lose a lot of water," Harrington said. "The treatments will help it retain its moisture. It will look better longer."

Harrington is working with tree growers statewide, who are donating some of the "companion" trees that will decorate other federal offices in Washington. Donors Harrington is working with are members of the New Mexico Tree Farmers. Additional companion trees are being solicited from New Mexico Christmas tree retailers.

The companion tree project reflects the philosophy of the forest management plans Harrington helps prepare for cooperating landowners: Selectively thinning the forest can reduce fire danger, improve forest health and generate income for entrepreneurs who sell trees during the holiday season. "Either we thin the forest or nature will do it for us," Harrington said. The difference is that a forest fire will not be selective in deciding which trees stay and which go, he said.

Landowners who follow good forest management practices are getting good results. On one ranch near the research center, Harrington and rancher John Bartley spent an afternoon surveying the mixed-conifer forest of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and fir. Several white fir fit their criteria for a spot in the U.S. Supreme Court building: a flawless shape, a pleasing color and a height of about 30 feet.

Dolores Maese, U.S. Forest Service public affairs officer for the Santa Fe National Forest, said the project should bring a lot of attention to the state's tree-farming industry.

"This project is a way to highlight some of the resources in our state and the people who make their living from those resources," she said.