Call it a time-honored tradition, with a dash of forest management.

The U.S. Forest Service is encouraging families hunting for the perfect Christmas tree to venture into federal forestlands — with

a permit, of course.

The agency says chopping trees offers a chance to enjoy nature, and also helps thin overcrowded areas of the forest that pose wildfire risks.

“By removing these smaller trees, it allows other trees to grow larger, because they have less competition for things like sunlight, nutrients and water,” said Lisa Herron, spokesperson for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “Fewer trees also mean less vegetation that could feed unwanted wildfires.”

California experienced its worst wildfire season on record in 2020, withmore than 4 million acres burned.

This year, the Forest Service moved most of its permit sales online, after an initial trial run last year.

“This was something the Forest Service had been working on for the future, but with COVID it became more necessary,” said Erica Hupp, public affairs officer for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

As families round the Thanksgiving corner into the holiday season, permits are selling quickly. The Eldorado National Forest and Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit have sold out, but there are still thousands available in surrounding forests:

Of course,the program has its limitations. Civilians felling Christmas trees on federal land is a tiny piece of a much larger forest management puzzle. But the Forest Service says people can chip in by following program guidelines.

Tree cutting is only permitted in designated areas that need fuel reduction; visitors are prohibited from cutting trees on privately-owned land. Each year, the agency’s forest health experts identify areas that are densely populated with trees and need thinning.

You can find the nearest national forest with thisinteractive map. Most trees can be cut down using a saw, and the Forest Service recommends cutting below the lowest whorl, or eight inches off the ground — whichever is lower.

Hupp, with the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, offers this advice for tree cutters venturing into the woods: Wear warm gloves, get an early start and check well in advance for inclement weather.

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