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‘Sugar Bear’ kicks off holiday season as Capitol Christmas Tree arrives

White fir traveled all the way from Six Rivers National Forest in California

Workers maneuver the 2021 Capitol Christmas Tree to its spot on the West Front on Friday morning.
Workers maneuver the 2021 Capitol Christmas Tree to its spot on the West Front on Friday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

’Twas a month before Christmas, when all through the Hill
Members were stirring, all about a bill.
The Capitol Tree was hung on the West Lawn with care,
By dozens of Architect of the Capitol workers — including St. Nicholas, who was there.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas around Congress, as an 84-foot white fir called “Sugar Bear” arrived Friday morning to a crowd of curious onlookers, AOC employees and U.S. Forest Service officials. Among them was Santa Claus, who traded in his iconic fur-lined red cap for a hardhat as he joined in the all-day affair of standing up the Capitol Christmas Tree, also known as “the People’s Tree.”

The tree actually got into Washington on Thursday evening to little fanfare — a silent night before the big unwrapping Friday morning. Its holding location just off the National Mall was moved because of a protest there. (This was no battle in the mythical War on Christmas; the demonstration was unrelated to the tree.) 

The event marks the start of the most wonderful time of the year for Congress: the mad dash to pass spending bills to keep the government’s lights on before the holidays. (It’s “wonderful” in that everyone wonders if there’ll be a shutdown, whether they’ll have to reschedule trips back home, and why this happens every year.)

The Capitol Christmas Tree tradition began in 1964, and the Forest Service has provided the tree since 1970. This year, the AOC gave its criteria to the rangers at Six Rivers National Forest in California — like height, width and diameter breast height (how wide the trunk is at about four feet) — and they combed the forest’s 1.2 million acres, coming up with a nice list of about 20 options.

Using drones, Six Rivers staff put together “a little sizzle reel” of candidates for the AOC to pick from, said Ted McArthur, the forest’s supervisor.

The tree traveled all the way from Six Rivers National Forest in California, stopping in 25 cities before it arrived in Washington. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The tannenbaum’s 4,500-mile, 25-city tour began high up in the forest’s Mad River Ranger District. “The roads are really windy … so we had to get a blade trailer — the kind used for wind turbines that has a steerable rear axle,” he said. “And even then, we had to get a forklift to lift around some of the corners.”

Once out of the woods, Sugar Bear was transferred to a custom-painted flatbed trailer from Spokane, Wash.-based Systems Transport, which donated the work.

The Forest Service didn’t cut down Sugar Bear just so it could adorn the Capitol; Six Rivers was swept up in two of the many forest fires that blanketed the West in smoke this year. Half of the Mad River Ranger District was burned in August, and Sugar Bear’s harvest is part of a larger culling of fuel in the area, said McArthur. 

McArthur hopes the buzz around the tree will inspire more visitors to Six Rivers. The far-flung forest in northwestern California gets about 27,000 hikers and campers a year, he said. Since the people’s tree announcement, more than 1 million people have visited its Facebook page.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi will officially light the tree in December. The handcrafted ornaments will all come from California.

If you’re looking for your own Sugar Bear this year, you’re in luck: Most national forests allow (with a permit) cutting down Christmas trees.

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