Holiday decor to park chalet? Capitol tree heads to Montana

HELENA, Mont. — The spruce tree destined to serve as the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree was carefully selected from a Montana forest and hauled across the country in a special truck to preserve its freshness.

The 79-foot-tall (24-meter-tall) tree, which was lit up last month during a ceremony with congressional members, had its own website and social media presence.

Now, some Montana companies hope to keep its fame alive by trucking it back home so it can be used to help rebuild a historic chalet in Glacier National Park that was destroyed in a wildfire last summer.

Some critics questioned the amount of fuel that would be burned to haul the tree back across the U.S. when Montana has plenty of trees, while others didn't mind as long as taxpayer money wasn't involved.

The effort is certainly more sentimental than practical, but no public money is being spent and no one can profit from the tree's use, said Bruce Ward with Choose Outdoors, the Denver-based nonprofit that organized the effort to bring the tree to Washington.

Ward got in on the idea after SmartLam, a Montana wood products company, contacted him about doing something more constructive than letting the celebrated tree end up as mulch for the Capitol lawn.

A few phone calls and goodwill gestures later, plans call for the tree to be cut into segments and trucked 2,300 miles (3,701 kilometers) back to Montana starting as early as next week. It was removed from the Capitol lawn Tuesday morning, officials said.

F.H. Stoltz Land & Lumber in Columbia Falls has agreed to process the wood, but vice president and general manager Chuck Roady noted that spruce is a softer wood and more suited for door or window frames or fireplace mantles than structural use in the new park chalet.

Glacier officials are waiting to see how the still-standing rock walls of the Sperry Chalet fare over the winter before deciding on any restoration plans, park spokeswoman Lauren Alley said.

Organizers asked Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for his support and he wrote to Capitol officials asking the tree to be released to Montana for use in the chalet.

"This wooden and stone landmark, built in Glacier's rugged backcountry more than a century ago, is irreplaceable," Tester wrote. "But efforts are underway to rebuild the Sperry Chalet, and I can think of no better use for some of the Montana lumber in our Capitol Christmas Tree to assist in that endeavor."

Ward had asked if the logs could hitch a ride back with a Montana-made copper star that topped the tree. Whitewood Transport Inc., which hauled the tree to Washington, said they could work that out, he said.

This isn't the first time the Capitol tree has been given a second life.

In early 2013, former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell arranged for the tree from a Colorado forest to be returned to the state. The Coors Brewing Co. trucked the tree back to Colorado in 6-foot (2-meter) pieces and the wood was used to make park benches, Ward said.

"For me, it's a great way to return a historic souvenir to the state to be used for worthwhile purposes," Ward said Monday.

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