The Thanksgiving dishes are washed, the leftovers stashed in the refrigerator. It is now - officially - acceptable to start decorating for Christmas. And for many folks, that means hiking into the forest and picking out a tree.

A permit is needed to legally cut down a tree in a national forest, but U.S. Forest Service offices in western Montana have already opened their doors for permit sales.

All permits are $5, with a limit of three per family.

Permits for the Bitterroot National Forest can be purchased at any Forest Service office in the Bitterroot Valley, or authorized retailers such as Bob Ward's in Hamilton, Mr. T's in Darby, Merc Fresh Market in Corvallis, Cenex in Stevensville and the Lone Pine Conoco in Hamilton.

All Lolo National Forest ranger district offices also offer permits. The Missoula office, located at Fort Missoula, is extending their hours to allow for easier permit sales. They will now be open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays, Dec. 3, 10 and 17, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Christmas tree permits for the Flathead National Forest are available from Forest Service offices in Kalispell, Hungry Horse and Bigfork.

Flathead permits can also be bought from several vendors, including Bear Track Travel in East Glacier, Ferndale Market in Bigfork, Glacier Center in Coram, Kelly Rae's Conoco in Kalispell, Local Joes Gas & Grub (Conoco) in Bigfork, Mike's Conoco in Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse and Whitefish, Ronan Power Products, Ronan Sports and Western Ronan in Ronan, Sliters Ace Hardware in Lakeside, Snappy's Sport Senter in Kalispell, Sportsman Ski Haus in Kalispell, Swan Ecosystem Center in Condon, Swan Lake Trading Post in Swan Lake, Swan Valley Centre in Condon.

Firewood permits are also available from these vendors, as well as Bitterroot Quick Stop in Kalispell. Firewood permits are $5 per cord with a minimum of four cords and a maximum of 12 per family.

For a permit to cut trees on north Idaho's Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, go to Harpster Store in Harpster, Tom Cat's Sporting Goods in Kooskia, Rae Brothers Sporting Goods and Tackett's Saw Service in Grangeville, Clonigers Harvest Foods in Kamiah, Helmer Store and Cafe in Helmer, Idaho Rigging Inc. in Potlatch and Southside Chevron and Woodland Enterprises in Moscow.

Permits for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest and BLM forests are available at Thrift Drug and Hardware Hank in Anaconda, Ace Hardware Store in Boulder, Wise River Mercantile in Wise River, True Value Hardware in Ennis, Wheat and Thistle in Harrison, McLeod Mercantile in Sheridan and Bob Ward and Sons Sporting Goods in Butte.

Permits can also be bought by mail. Send a check for $5 to the nearest Forest Service office - checks to be made out to "USDA Forest Service" - or to the nearest BLM office - checks to be made out to "USDI Bureau of Land Management." Include your name and address.

***

Plum Creek Timber Co. lands allow each family to cut down one tree. It's free and doesn't require a permit, but everyone is held to the honor system.

All forests have restrictions to which and where trees can be cut.

Do not cut trees from plantations, previously thinned areas and restricted areas such as developed recreation sites or existing timber sales areas.

Do not leave any live branches and trim the stump to less than five inches above the soil.

Do not cut off tops of trees or full trees just to use the top. Choose a tree that is already the size you want it.

Do not cut trees within 150 feet of creeks or streams or within wilderness areas.

Make sure the tree you wish to cut down is on national forest land or specified private land.

Do not cut down trees in campgrounds.

National forest personnel warn visitors to be prepared for all kinds of weather. Bring the right gear, be wary of how much daylight is left and tell someone where you are and when you should be back.

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