Fourth Graders & a Christmas Tree Hunt

Somehow, this just seems wrong. Christmas trees? Christmas? Already?

On the other hand, the press release from the U.S. Forest Service (and the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest folks) is probably right on time. Families can be planning now to go find the tree which will form the centerpiece of their spiritual and physical celebration of Christmas.

Each fourth grader with an “Every Kid” pass can get a free Christmas tree permit. That permit opens the door to a family adventure – and maybe the beginning of a family tradition and memories savored for a lifetime or more.

We’ve looked at this before. In 2016, President Obama kicked off the national Every Kid in a Park Initiative as part of the 100th Anniversary celebration of the National Park Service. Operated by an interagency group of feds involved with our outdoors, the idea is to encourage children to visit national parks, forests and public lands. Now, each fourth grader in the country can obtain an annual (September 1 to August 31) paper pass for free entry into all federal lands and waters. That paper pass can be exchanged for a multi-agency plastic pass at a number of partner sites (including most of our Forest Service District Ranger offices). The pass admits the pass-holding kid and any passengers in the same private vehicle to per-vehicle charge sites, or the kid and up to three hanger-on adults to per-person charge sites. This is good at all federal land and water sites. Get all the details, of course, at the Every Kid in a Park website – (Your kid may already have his/her pass – many fourth-grade teachers make it a class project.)

This is a big deal; more than 80 percent of American families are deep urbanites, with limited safe outdoor access, and youngsters spend more time than ever before staring at screens. The goal of the program is to get kids and families out to our federal lands and waters. Targeting fourth graders, over time, will ensure that every child in the U.S. has the opportunity to visit and enjoy our nation’s wild and sacred lands and waters. Given that children between nine and 11 are uniquely open to learning about their world, and are highly receptive to new ideas, fourth graders are at an ideal age to develop a lifelong devotion to nature and our outdoor heritage.

So, why not start with a Christmas tree permit? To get the free one, the kid takes the “Every Kid” pass to any eastern Washington Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest ranger district office or headquarters office (Cle Elum, Leavenworth, Naches, or another) during regular business hours and claims his or her tree permit tag. Additional public permits are available for five bucks. This could be a great start to a family outdoor year.

The Old Man always loved our “tree hunt.”  He explained to me and his two other sons that we hunted deer to sustain our physical selves through winter. Our Christmas tree hunt, he said, was to sustain our spirits through whatever lean times might come. He had precious little education, but he was a wise man. With his construction work in the tough 1950s, lean times were almost guaranteed by every Christmas.

At some point in December, we would load up at our East Wenatchee house and head up to Uncle Ed and Aunt Evy’s place on the Little Chumstick, out of Leavenworth. Somewhere on those hillsides, we knew, was the perfect tree. It was as close as The Old Man ever got to democracy; we all had a vote, and only a unanimous vote would get a tree cut. We would stand before tree after tree, and split each ballot. Over a few hours, of course, the split grew narrower, as my younger siblings grew weary of democracy. Finally, some ideal young Douglas fir (in his opinion, the only true Christmas tree) would receive a unanimous, if teeth-chattering, “aye!”  After a short ceremony, my father would cut the tree.

Few presents or little money, there was always the tree. It was the hearth around which we heard the biblical stories of Christmas, and learned of family Christmas traditions.

Christmas ended when the tree came down. Some years it lasted well into January – some years we needed a constant reminder of the spirit of the season.

Different times, these today. For a lot of good reasons, we probably still need that icon carrying us through the Christmas season. Decorated with the trappings of faith and family ways, surrounded and filled with gifts, it is still the focal point of most of our family celebrations.

Get the permit. Get the tree. Make a memory in the forests of Paradise to fix in our children a commitment to wild places and wild things forever. Let the scent that fills your home carry you back – again and again – to your hunt in the forest. Let it be a source of family pleasure and togetherness.

Who knows what this “Every Kid” pass will accomplish over time? This is important. To paraphrase Jodi Larsen, Upper County Rotary: Children are the emissaries we send into a time we will never see – what do we want them to take along?

Too early, I fear… But is it ever too early to help kids and families develop a commitment to a forever outdoor future? Hmmm…

Fine… Merry Christmas!

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized