These days, artificial trees are far more popular than actual trees. About 80% of all Christmas trees in American homes this holiday season will be manufactured. For the 20% that put up a real tree, the vast majority will buy them from a dealer. There is, however, a small group of traditionalists who like to head off into the woods and harvest their own family Christmas tree.

Here in Montana, we are able to harvest a tree without too much red tape, but there are some things you need to know.

  1. You Must Purchase A Permit  - Unless you are harvesting a tree from private land (with the owner's permission of course), you will need to purchase a permit to harvest a tree from the forest. A permit will only cost you $5, so make sure you take the time to get a permit and keep things legal.
  2. Not Every Tree Is Eligible For Harvesting  -  Once you have your permit, you should be aware that there are restrictions on where you can take a tree from.  Prohibited areas include: Campgrounds, trail heads, or any area marked for "Timber Sale", and land within 100 feet of a stream, lake or wetland.  Before you break out the tools, make sure you're not in a restricted part of the forest.
  3. Take The Whole Tree  - "Tree topping" is not good for the forest and is therefore prohibited. When you're searching for a tree, make sure you find a tree that works for your house and take the whole thing. You can take a tree up to 15 feet tall, which is about twice the size the average home could accommodate.
  4. Bring The Right Tools For The Job - Remember that when you cut the tree, the stump you leave behind can be no more than 6 inches above the ground. This means that you will most likely be down on the ground, under the tree when you cut it down. If you want to do the job quickly, bring a powered saw of some kind. Gloves are definitely a smart idea and of course you'll need something to tie the tree down when you haul it.
  5. Don't Forget To Tag Your Tree - That $5 permit you bought doesn't do any good if you leave it at home. Make sure you bring the permit and affix it to the tree trunk or low branch so it is clearly visible. Otherwise, you might end up having a not so pleasant conversation with a park ranger.


Make sure you take your time and choose a tree that will have minimal impact on the forest. Be certain about the tree before you start cutting it down. It is not uncommon that people will cut a tree that is too large and end up having to trim it substantially or even cut down a different tree. Don't do that. Take your time and pick out a tree that works for you and your family.

You can purchase your permit at the Custer National Forest Supervisor's Office at 5001 Southgate Drive in Billings.  According to the people I spoke with there, Cabela's is not selling permits this year (even though a publication recently listed them as a vendor). For those of you who can't get to a government office during the week, you can purchase a permit from Ace Hardware in the Heights.  In Red Lodge, permits are available at Sylvan Peak.

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