I learned something new; you can get a permit to cut down your own Christmas tree in select national forests. Not only do you get a wonderful family experience, you are increasing the health of the forest by thinning out densely populated stands of small-diameter trees.
Find the Closest Participating National Forest
First, find the closest participating forest. The closest forest to Nashville is the Shawnee National Forest, in Illinois on the other side of the Ohio River from Paducah, Kentucky. Depending on where you are in Middle Tennessee, the drive is approximately 3 hours.
The tree season in the Shawnee National Forest is November 18 – December 31, 2020.
Not all National Forests are participating, but there is a large list. However, most are in the western part of the U.S. You can see a full map of locations on Recreation.gov.
Purchase Your Tree Permit for $5
The next step is to purchase your tree permit. They are available on Recreation.gov
How to Get a Free Tree Permit
If you have a current 4th or 5th grader, you are in luck! You can get a free tree permit using the Every Kid Outdoors pass, which allows all 4th graders free access to national park lands.
Due to the pandemic, 5th graders can also get a pass allowing them free access to public lands through August 2021. Get your pass here.
Once you have your Every Kid Outdoor pass, you can use it to get a free tree permit. All you have to do is check the box indicating you have a free pass when you fill out the form to get a Christmas tree permit. Full disclosure, there is a $2.50 reservation fee.
Things You Need to Know Before You Go
Before you head out on your trip to cut your own Christmas tree, be sure you have all the tools and know the rules set by the National Forest.
Where within the Forest to Cut Your Tree
- Do not cut trees on private land
- Do not cut trees in Wilderness areas, Natural Areas, or experimental forests
- Do not cut in areas that have been planted with new trees
- Do not cut trees in developed recreation areas (campgrounds, picnic areas, etc.)
- Do not cut trees within 150 feet of bodies of water
- Christmas trees may be cut along roads and trails, unless restricted above.
- Click here for maps to Christmas tree cutting areas inside Shawnee National Forest
Selecting Your Tree
- Only Eastern redcedar trees can be cut with this tree permit
- Do not cut a tree taller than 15 feet
- Stumps have a maximum diameter of 6 inches
- Take the entire tree; do not just cut and remove the top of the tree
- The stump should be cut no more than 6 inches above the ground
- If there is snow on the ground, remove it so you can accurately measure the stump and tree height
Plan Your Trip
- Print and bring your Christmas Tree Permit with you
- Cell service may be spotty or unavailable, be sure someone knows where you are and when you should be back
- Check the weather and for any road closures
- Bring a map; GPS may not be up to date or you may have signal issues
- Make sure you have a full tank of gas, and bring a spare key to your car
Tips to Cut Down Your Tree
- Chainsaws are allowed to cut down your tree, but you can not use a truck, wench, ATV or other mechanized equipment to drag the tree out of the forest
- Carry your tree out of the woods. If you drag it, the tree will lose needles and bark
- If you plan to put the tree on top of your vehicle, wrap it in a canvas tarp to prevent wind damage
- Once home, cut 1/2 to one inch off the trunk and place the tree in a fresh bucket of water
- Tools you may need: a measuring tape, hand saw, gloves, boots, a tarp to help move your tree once it is cut, ropes and straps to secure the tree to your vehicle
- Choose a tree from a densely forested area, giving the remaining trees more room to grow
Have Questions? Contact a Ranger
If you have questions about the Christmas tree permit program, contact a Ranger. Here is the contact information for the Ranger districts that cover the Shawnee National Forest.
Hidden Springs Ranger District
602 N First Street Route 45 North, Vienna, IL 62995 (618) 658-2111
Mississippi Ranger District
521 N. Main Street, Jonesboro, IL 62952 (618) 833-8576
Shawnee Forest Supervisor’s Office
50 Hwy 145 South P.O. Box 505, Harrisburg, IL 62946 (618) 253-7114