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For those who enjoy placing a bulky, poky fire hazard in their homes during the holiday season to festoon with lights and ornaments, there's no better buy than a Forest Service permit. 

The $5 tags are good for one Christmas tree culled from your nearby national forest. 

The process can be as hard or simple as you make it, from a quick cut not far from a road, to a hike through deep snow. 

There are some restrictions on cutting, per Forest Service rules:

  • No tree cutting is allowed within 100 feet of any stream, lake or wetland. 
  • Only trees 15 feet tall or shorter may be cut.
  • Cut your tree as close to the ground as possible and below the lowest live limb. A remaining stump height of 4 inches is ideal. 
  • After cutting your tree, attach the purchased permit to a lower limb near the trunk for transporting home.
  • "Topping" trees, or cutting the top off trees, deforms any future growth and leaves a visual eyesore. Take the entire tree or choose another one.
  • Permits are limited to three per household.

Once you have a tree, toss it in a truck bed, lash it to your vehicle's roof, or perhaps even jam it into the trunk and backseat of a sedan. Trees are generally sturdy, but don't expect one to survive being cut loose at 70 mph. 

Live trees generally need water, so use a tree stand that holds water around the cut area. Some folks swear by a mixture of water and sugar or soda. 

When thinking about where the crowds look for trees, follow some of the same basic rules for trailheads.

If it's a short trip on a paved road — like lower sections of the West Fork Road outside Red Lodge — you'll probably have company. But if you're willing to navigate snow-packed gravel roads, or to hike in a couple miles, you'll likely see only your own footsteps in the snow. 

In Billings, purchase a permit at Cabela's or Ace Hardware in the Heights, or check the full retailer list. 

  • Belgrade: Town and Country Grocery and Belgrade True Value.
  • Bozeman: Owenhouse Ace Hardware (downtown store bicycle shop and W. Main St. store), Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply.
  • Four Corners: Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply.
  • Big Sky: Big Sky Conoco.
  • West Yellowstone: Corner Cenex.
  • Livingston: Ace Hardware.
  • Gardiner: Gardiner Market.
  • Red Lodge: Sylvan Peak Mountain Shop.
  • Absorkee: Rockin J Gas Station.
  • Billings: Cabela’s & Ace Hardware (Heights location).
  • Ekalaka: Carter County Conservation District.
  • Forest Service offices in Bozeman; West Yellowstone; Livingston; Gardiner; Red Lodge; Ashland; and Camp Crook, South Dakota, have permits available from 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Monday – Friday.

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