You can buy a Christmas tree for as little as $5 if there's a national forest nearby

Cutting down a Christmas tree can be good for the environment.

November 21, 2023, 2:58 PM

The centerpiece for home holiday decorating could cost next to nothing if you live near a national forest and are willing to do some heavy lifting.

The U.S. Forest Service is encouraging Americans to cut down their Christmas trees at a nearby federally protected forest, and in a majority of participating locations, all it will cost is a mere $5 or $10 for a permit.

Forests offering Christmas tree permits for purchase online.

Cutting down Christmas trees actually improves forest health, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The permit system, offered at dozens of national forests throughout the country, helps to thin densely populated areas of small-diameter trees and allows other trees to grow larger, opening areas that provide forage for wildlife and reduce wildfire danger.

In untouched foliage, natural selection causes trees to grow smaller and closer together, Jill Sidebottom, seasonal spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, told ABC News. The trees "compete" with each other for resources, including sunlight and water.

Cutting them down allows better growth for the trees that remain and builds resiliency to threats such as insects and disease, Sidebottom said.

Trees cut from the forest would likely be more "open," allowing for more ornament placement, because they are not being sheared and packaged throughout the commercial process, Sidebotto said.

Ocala National Forest in Florida.
National Forest Service

The areas that would most benefit from thinning trees, which tend to house trees the "perfect size for Christmas," are pre-determined by local forest health experts, according to the Forest Service. The type of trees available depends on the forest of choice.

At Ocala National Forest in Florida, sand pine trees are the species that need to be thinned out, Jared Nobles, district silviculturist for Ocala National Forest, told ABC News.

About 306,000 permits have been sold annually since sales began on in 2020, according to the Forest Service. The average number of permits sold in 2018 and 2019 was about 240,000. Most of the holiday tree permits are issued in November.

It was once a common occurrence for Americans living in rural areas to venture into a nearby forest to cut down a Christmas tree, prior to the evolution of the modern Christmas tree industry in the mid-20th century, Sidebottom said.

ABC News' Ginger Zee cuts down a Christmas tree in the Ocala National Forest in Florida.
ABC News

The tradition also connects people to their local forests, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Nobles described the act of finding and cutting a tree as an "adventure."

"If you’re tight on a budget, come over here and get you a Christmas tree," Nobles said.

Each year, the Christmas tree displayed at the U.S. Capitol is cut from a national forest.

This year's U.S. Capitol tree originated from Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.

The permits serves as an alternative to purchasing a tree from a stand or tree farm, some of which across the country are experiencing shortages.

ABC News' Ginger Zee visits the Ocala National Forest in Florida.
ABC News

Tree cutting guidelines from the USDA

  • Contact the forest district office nearest you to obtain a permit for home firewood, Christmas tree and tree cutting instructions.
  • The chosen tree must be at least 200 feet from main roads, recreation sites and campgrounds. Visitors should also stay away from the sides of streams, rivers, lakes and wet areas.
  • Select a tree with a trunk of 6 inches or less in diameter. Prepare to cut the three no more than six inches above ground level.
  • The wood of Christmas trees cannot be sold, and permits must be in the holder's possession at all times while in the forest.
  • Never cut a tall tree just for the top.
  • Only cut one tree per tag.
  • Bring a rope and tarp to move the tree from the harvest area to your vehicle.
  • Check weather conditions and dress properly.
  • Inform someone where you are going and when you will return.
  • Check with your local district before cutting downed or dead trees, which could provide habitat to wildlife.
  • Be aware of areas where trees may be weakened by storms, insect damage or fire.
  • Bring emergency supplies, including water, food and a first aid kit.

ABC News' Daniel Manzo, Daniel Peck and Ginger Zee contributed to this report.

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