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Cutting down a Christmas tree in the national forest

Most of us get our Christmas trees from a lot or a farm.

But if you have a saw and five bucks, you can cut down a tree in the national forest. Peter Payette took his family out to do it the old fashioned way and sent this report:

It’s true that five bucks is not much to pay for a tree, but it’ll cost you some time and gas money to get there.

The first stop is at a U.S. Forest Service office to buy a tag.

There’s one in Cadillac where Dianne Berry sells us our tags and helps us get our bearings.

“This is a two sided map... the other side has the area closest to Manistee. And on the Huron-Manistee we have almost a million acres.”

That means there are 500,000 acres of trees just on this side of the state, between Cadillac and Big Rapids!

But Dianne is reluctant to suggest a place to start looking for a Christmas tree.

“Oh there’s a lot of trees, a lot of beautiful trees.”

This is the second time we’ve done this and the navigating is a little more complicated than you might think.

National forests are actually a patchwork of forests checkered with blocks of private land. So you have to do some figuring to be sure you’re actually on public land so you don’t bring down somebody else’s tree.

The first piece of advice the Forest Service offers is to tell someone when you take a trip into the forest.

I have my entire family, my in-laws, and two dogs with me so I’m probably okay.

My advice, if you’re going for a Christmas tree, is to lower your expectations a little bit. Wild trees are not as full or symmetrical as the ones available on tree lots.

Last time my oldest daughter, Isabelle, was mortified when we got it back to our living room.

ISABELLE: “In the woods it looks really fat and bushy and then you bring it in your house and it looks like a twig.”

And my other piece of advice: be ready for disagreements, since it’s easy to find fault with these trees.

(Here's a sample of a conversation my daughters had: ISABELLE: "Daddy, we should get this one, I think!" AMELIA: "Noooo.  It's too small!" ISABELLE: "Feel how soft the needles are." AMELIA: "I don't want it!")

The results this time were much better than before.

We searched more widely and found a clump of fine spruce trees.

My in-laws took one with a split trunk that had many branches. Ours was a little skimpier but filled out nicely when we loaded it up with ornaments.

My mother in-law said it looked as good as any tree you’d buy for forty-five dollars.

I think she really meant it.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.